Stephen Demik, now a lawyer in Rapid City, boarded a small, rickety plane in 2006 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The aircraft then circled around Cuba to avoid entering its airspace before landing at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay.
Demik, then a federal public defender in San Diego, was traveling there to meet with his clients: men being held at the base's prison who were labeled terrorists and enemy combatants by the U.S government but never charged with any specific crime.
"It's not the Cuba that most people think of," Demik said of the base and prison. "There's no sandy beaches." Instead it's a hot, isolated and "especially barren place" filled with iguanas, giant crabs and "soul-crushing boredom."
Over the next seven years, Demik would make about a dozen trips to the island to meet with four clients: Hamoud Al Wady, Ghaleb Nassar al Bihani, Asim al Khalaqi and Shawki Awad Balzuhair. All four were eventually released without being charged or tried in court.
Demik met with the men as they sat in plastic chairs and were chained to the floor inside a trailer. Later, they met in a formal visiting room after a more modern prison was built.
The men were at times "very despondent" and even suicidal, Demik said. But other times they were happy to speak with him. Demik updated them on the federal lawsuits fighting for more rights for the prisoners, and the detainees asked him to tell the guards how their quality of life could be improved.
But about half of the visit, Demik said, was spent in "just human conversation. I don't think they got a lot of that from anybody."
Demik would tell the inmates about holidays such as Halloween and Christmas; they would tell him about their families and give him parenting advice.
He agreed to volunteer his time to represent the men in 2005 after seeing a flyer that said the Center for Constitutional Rights was looking for lawyers to work in Guantanamo. CCR, a New York-based nonprofit legal advocacy group focused on civil and human rights cases, defended Guantanamo detainees and earned them more rights by winning arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This is a really big legal battle, and so I wanted to be involved in it. And I wanted to be on the side of the constitution," Demik said."I just thought it was a special point in history, and I wanted to be part of it.
"I don't love terrorists, but I love the constitution, and the constitution says these guys get rights and that was really what drove me and what a lot of people can identify with," he said."We're not here for a popularity contest. We're here to impose the constitution and people's rights and follow the law to achieve justice."
Demik said that attitude "translates" to Rapid City, where he's represented people — often from disadvantaged backgrounds like some of the prisoners in Guantanamo — accused of horrific crimes. When people ask how he can defend his current clients and those in Guantanamo, Demik said he responds by saying that he's defending the constitution and legal process.
Whether in Guantanamo Bay or Rapid City, constitutional rights and the presumption of innocence is "what separates us from the mob-justice mentality," Demik said.
Demik represented his four Guantanamo clients from 2005-2013 while working as a federal public defender in San Diego and Los Angeles. In 2013, Demik transferred to Rapid City and then back to Los Angeles in 2017.
In 2018, he opened a private practice where he represents plaintiffs in civil cases and defendants in criminal cases in both Rapid City and L.A. He said he's most interested in civil rights, and clients who are suing the government, law enforcement agencies and insurance companies.
"I represent the little guy," he said.
Demik said working in Guantanamo made him more appreciative of the rights he and his clients in the Rapid City area have. South Dakota's conservative values create a "real respect for the law," which can help some people understand the work he did in Guantanamo and continues to do here, Demik said.
Before being allowed to work with the detainees, Demik said he had to gain a security clearance through a background check. To arrive at the base, he would either fly on a chartered plane from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., or a commercial flight from Florida. To board, he had to show his passport and clearance documents.
Demik said the flights had a "weird sort of atmosphere" since it was a mix of lawyers representing detainees, and family members of the people guarding them or others working on the base.
After landing on the base's airstrip, Demik and other lawyers would stop at a Walmart-like store to load up on meats and vegetables, and then grill them outside the hotel-like facility they stayed at.
The next day, Demik would wake up around 5 a.m. and board an old white school bus that took him and others to a port. They then got on a ferry that took them across the bay. There, they boarded a bus with a military escort for a 30- to 45-minute ride to the prison. The bus would often stop at McDonald's so lawyers could "load up on food" for their clients.
At the prison complex, Demik said, he went through checkpoints and a metal detector and had all of his paperwork, including photos of his clients' families, reviewed by a military lawyer. He wasn't allowed to take photos anywhere on the base. After an hour or two, he was let inside to visit his clients for about two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.
Demik would wear a suit, even when it was more than 100 degrees, to show respect to his clients, who he communicated with through an Arabic translator. At the end of the meetings, the military lawyer would collect his materials, including new notes, put them in a manila envelope and send it to a secure facility near D.C.
At first, Demik would visit his clients in a trailer that the detainees were moved into from their cells a day or two before his visit. A bed, bathroom and prayer rug were on one side of the trailer, and an informal meeting room was on the other. Demik had access to a help button if he needed a guard. He didn't see where the detainees were usually housed.
Later, the prisoners were moved into a modern high-tech prison, similar to the supermax prison near Florence, Colo., Demik said. He saw the inmates' small cells and giant fans in the hallways, which inmates told him were turned on to prevent them from being able to communicate with each other.
He called his clients "very human," people who were brothers and sons and demonstrated humanity. "The argument that these guys were the worst of the worst," as former Vice President Dick Cheney said, is "ludicrous."
Demik said not all of his clients expressed hatred for America, but their experience in Guantanamo wouldn't have helped them develop fond feelings for the country. It's "no hidden fact" that inmates were tortured, he said.
His goal was to get his clients out of Guantanamo. They were all classified as low-value detainees and eventually released through the Administrative Review Board, which conducted parole-like hearings that determined if a prisoner was safe to leave.
One of Demik's clients, al Wady, was sent to his home country of Saudi Arabia. The others were sent to a third-party country that agreed to accept them. Demik said al Bihani, of Yemen, was a cook for the Taliban and never accused of fighting against the U.S. but still put on a list for indefinite detention. Al Bihani was eventually released to Oman. Asim al Khalaqi, also of Yemen, was sent to Kazakhstan and died soon after he arrived.
Balzuhair, another of Demik's clients from Yemen, was sent to Cape Verde, a country on a chain of islands off the northwest coast of Africa where the Portuguese creole language is spoken. Balzuhair had trouble settling into the new culture but thanked Demik and his other lawyers for helping secure his release, Demik said.
Demik said the way Guantanamo Bay prisoners were treated was "really an affront to the constitution because these detainees were being held without charges, without being able to see the evidence against them, without even the ability to plead guilty."
Eventually, he said, the prisoners did gain more rights after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Guantanamo detainees have the right to challenge the legality of their detention in court.
But Demik still called their rights "due process light."
"The constitution applies to everybody, so if you're not a citizen of the country" you still get rights, he said.
Demik said the U.S. government argued that the prisoners weren't on U.S. soil and therefore didn't need full rights. But he believes if the U.S. government is confident in its judicial system, it should have brought the prisoners onto U.S. soil and given them full rights.
Demik's access to information about his clients was also limited. At first, he could only examine evidence and letters from his clients at the secure facility near D.C. Later, the rules loosened up and he was able to receive letters reviewed by a military censor via e-mail.
"The military just made it up as they went along," he said.
Demik is still under a protective order that prevents him from sharing anything that threatens national security.
About 780 people have been detained at Guantanamo and 40 remain, according to the New York Times.