More than four years ago, Georgetown Law School professor Neal Katyal was looking to represent a detainee at Guantanamo Bay who had not “pulled the trigger” on an American. In front of a crowd of about 75 at Ryan Family Auditorium in Technological Institute on Thursday night, he told the audience how his eventual client, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, had been described to him.
“‘I’ve got a guy who drove a bad guy around,'” Katyal recalled the chief prosecutor telling him. “I asked him who it was and he said, ‘That’s the bad news: It’s Osama bin Laden.’ ”
The resulting case, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, eventually came before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled 5-3 in 2006 that the military commissions the Bush administration established to try enemy combatants were illegal, both under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and under Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. Katyal was invited to campus as the keynote speaker of the Muslim-cultural Students Association’s Islam Awareness Week.
Hamdan v. Rumsfeld was the first step to re-establishing habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo detainees, said Northwestern Law School Prof. Joseph Margulies, who consulted with Katyal as he worked on his own Guantanamo case, Rasul v. Bush.
“It’s an exceedingly important case in the post-9/11 series, and Neal should be proud of what he’s accomplished,” Margulies said. “It is because of that case that we have habeas for prisoners at Guantanamo.”
McSA Executive Vice President Mohanned El-Natour said that, given Katyal’s high profile, he was surprisingly eager to come to campus.
“We thought it was a long shot,” the McCormick senior said of getting the Illinois native to come. “But he went out of his way to come up here because coming from Wilmette, NU is kind of his home school.”
Although Katyal promised that he would follow the advice of his mother, who was in the audience, and not try to be “funny or charming,” he kept the tone congenial. He said to the crowd that, given previous court rulings and current statements by the Obama administration, his subject was one of history.
“Guantanamo is now a relic, and this will be a look back,” he said.
Katyal described trying to overturn the military commissions, which he termed “unlike even Soviet justice” in their unfairness. Originally, attorney client privilege didn’t even exist between the military lawyers defending Hamdan and the ones prosecuting him, Katyal noted.
He also walked the audience through the process of preparing for the arduous oral argument in front of the Supreme Court for the first time in his career. He hired a former actor to drill him on the particulars of presenting the argument, which can be interrupted at any time by questions from the nine justices.
“It’s just question, question, question,” Katyal said. “The art is saying what you want to have them hear, folded into the question.”
However, he said that the entire process reminded him of the strength of the American legal system.
“The system corrects itself,” Katyal said. “The lowest of the low can bring a case against the world’s most powerful man and win.”
Earlier, Mufti Hussain Kamani, Imam of Islamic Community Center in Chicago, spoke vigorously on Islamic views of justice and the need to treat everyone equally.
“Why did Allah create different races?” Mufti Kamani said. “So that we come together and learn about ourselves from each other.”
Weinberg senior Ran Li said he attended the event to hear the gripping story of a man who defended Osama bin Laden’s driver in front of the Supreme Court.
“It’s inspiring that he was able to go against the system,” Li said. “He was able to defend something so controversial.”
This sentiment was echoed by several other attendees of the talk, which began with Weinberg freshman Amin Elsaeed reciting Sura 4 Verse 135 of the Quran, and Weinberg senior Aamna Anwer translating afterward.
“Stand firmly for justice,” Anwer translated. “Even against yourselves or your parents or your kin, and whether it be for rich or poor.”