National Law Journal highlights pro bono efforts of Sternhell '02 on behalf of Guantanamo detainees

Since 2005, Michael Sternhell ’02, an associate at New York-based Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, has devoted more than 1,400 pro bono hours representing seven ethnic Uighurs (pronounced Weegers) wrongfully imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, despite the government’s acknowledgment of their innocence.

Sternhell had been looking for a pro bono Guantanamo case when a friend referred him to a group of refugees who had been denied the right to file a habeas petition. “Since I believe that everyone deserves their day in court, I was offended that the government denied them their right to file a petition,” Sternhell told the National Law Journal on February 12.

Sternhell’s clients, who are a Muslim minority group from western China, had traveled to nearby Afghanistan for religious freedom. According to the National Law Journal, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, they were abducted by bounty hunters, sold to the U.S. military, and brought to Guantanamo. Shortly after Sternhell and his colleagues filed habeas corpus petitions in 2005, the government acknowledged that three of Sternhell’s seven clients were not enemy combatants. Those three clients were released to Albania, where Sternhell traveled in 2006 to ensure their rights as refugees were respected.

In September 2008, following years of motions before the U.S. District Court, the D.C. Circuit, and foreign governments, the U.S. government finally conceded that none of the remaining 17 Uighurs at Guantanamo, including Sternhell’s four clients, were enemy combatants.

Since the Uighurs would be tortured if they returned to China, and the Bush administration had said no other country would accept them, in October 2008, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered all 17 men released to the United States. This was the first time a district court judge had ordered Guantanamo prisoners released on a habeas petition. The government has appealed the order, and the four clients remain in Guantanamo pending the D.C. Circuit’s decision. Sternhell’s three other clients are free and still living in Albania.