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Kuwait helps pay detainees’ legal bills
Question of the Day
Three U.S. law firms and a public relations company have received millions of dollars from a Middle Eastern organization partly financed by the Kuwaiti government to work for families of Kuwaiti men detained at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, public records show.
The legal work, funded by the Kuwait-based International Counsel Bureau (ICB), has figured prominently in court proceedings that have gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, including last month’s 5-4 ruling giving the detainees the right to have their cases heard in U.S. courts.
The ICB gets at least some of its funding to hire U.S. lawyers through the Kuwaiti government, records show.
“We understand that the government of Kuwait makes financial contributions for the legal fees and expenses of the International Counsel Bureau,” D.C. lawyer Thomas B. Wilner stated in a public filing with the Justice Department in 2005.
The Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington did not return telephone messages concerning the nature of the country’s relationship with the ICB.
Among the most prominent lawyers working on the Guantanamo litigation, Mr. Wilner is a partner at Shearman & Sterling LLP, which received more than $1 million from the Kuwait-based group. ICB has paid nearly $4 million overall to the U.S. firms, according to Justice Department and U.S. Senate lobbying records.
“This is not a case where the firm profited financially,” Mr. Wilner said. “We put more time and effort in this case than all the other firms combined.”
Shearman & Sterling spokesman Peter Horowitz said the firm donated about $1.5 million in proceeds it received from its work for Guantanamo detainees to the not-for-profit Regional Plan Association in New York, which seeks to shape transportation systems, protect open spaces and promote better community design for a 31-county area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Still, the fee arrangements between the Kuwaiti group and U.S. firms have prompted sharp criticism in recent years from Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, who has questioned the flow of foreign money for lawyers involved in U.S. judicial proceedings on national security issues.
Most U.S. law firms working on behalf of Guantanamo detainees are doing so at no charge. More than 50 firms were honored last year for doing pro bono work for detainees at a ceremony in Washington hosted by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. Among the firms was Shearman & Sterling.
A spokesman for the legal aid group said the organization wasn’t aware that Shearman & Sterling had worked on a fee basis. Mr. Wilner said the firm has been working pro bono since 2005, though it continued receiving fees from the ICB until 2006. Mr. Wilner said those fees were for work performed during 2005 and earlier.
“The idea that all of the lawyers here are working pro bono isn’t true. It just makes the cause look more noble,” Ms. Burlingame said.
According to its Web site, ICB was founded in 1994 by Abdul Rahman R. Al-Haroun, former manager for the corporate department of the Kuwaiti National Petroleum Co. The firm’s other partner, Ghazi Al Qahtani, joined in 1998 after 23 years with the Kuwait Oil Co., where he was general counsel and head of the company’s legal-affairs group, according to the bureau.
In written and public testimony for a congressional hearing last year, Ms. Burlingame accused Shearman & Sterling and other firms hired by ICB of “cashing in.” In comments that echoed previous statements by Ms. Burlingame on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, she also criticized the firms for accepting “millions of dollars in fees in furtherance of acquiring the release of committed [jihadis] from U.S. custody while men and women of the U.S. armed services are under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
In response, a Shearman lawyer rebutted Ms. Burlingame’s comments in a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, a copy of which the firm provided to The Washington Times.
About the Author
Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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