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From Cramped Office, Students Accomplish Major Change in Law

"People were telling us it was a waste of time," Sklar said of the assessments about the Abu Ali suit, which his group filed for the family in July 2004 against then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, the Justice Department and the FBI.

The one thing that makes the human rights organization different, he said, "is that we are looking for creative solutions to important problems. Little groups like ours are flexible and can do that."


American University students Sheku Sheikholeslami, left, and Sapna Lalmalani successfully argued that federal courts should review the case of a man detained by the Saudi government. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)




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The organization operates on a minuscule annual budget of $125,000, provided by charitable foundations and private donors. It has two staff members, Sklar and a staff attorney, who at times have forgone some of their salaries to keep the place operating.

The unpaid law students, who say they intern with the group because of an interest in human rights, are the backbone of the legal research and casework.

Every nook and cranny of the office -- three rooms and a hallway -- rented in an older K Street office building are filled with client files, particularly those of refugees who turned to the organization for help in seeking asylum from torture. The group has made itself an expert in representing women who are victims of female genital mutilation, many of whom want to stay in the United States to protect their daughters from the same disfigurement in their homeland.

For intern Lalmalani, the smallness of the group, and its need to have interns do the heavy legal lifting, were part of the appeal.

Not long after Sheikholeslami took the Abu Ali call, Sklar asked Lalmalani to help write a legal filing for federal court, known as a habeas corpus petition, that would challenge Abu Ali's imprisonment.

"He told us to write a complaint on habeas corpus," she recalled. "I said, 'What in the world are you talking about?' I knew a little about the Guantanamo [Bay] detainees and the recent rulings by the Supreme Court. I knew nothing about habeas and extraordinary renditions."

Soon she was helping stitch together a 27-page legal brief arguing that the American courts did have jurisdiction to review a person's imprisonment in a foreign country -- if the United States played a role in that imprisonment. A federal judge agreed, the first time that issue has ever been decided.

The interns' arguments were largely based on Rasul v. Bush, a Supreme Court ruling last June that allowed detainees in Guantanamo Bay to challenge their imprisonment through the federal courts.

"When you are a law student working for a firm, you get to write a memo, maybe," said Lalmalani, 23, who credits Sklar's supervision. "Here we were writing the whole brief."

Sklar said that despite the recent David and Goliath victory, the group's finances are tighter than ever.

One foundation cut its grant from $50,000 to $25,000; another withheld funding because of the controversy associated with opposing the government's anti-terror tactics. Many groups, he said, are choosing to make big donations to larger organizations because it is simpler for them to chart the work of that organization and justify it to their directors.

"If I were a big foundation with a lot of money, I'd give out grants of $25,000 to 200 small groups; there's so much more value for the money," Sklar said, noting how much his non-hierarchical organization has done with meager funds. "The big groups fall behind simply because they're more bureaucratic."

Sheikholeslami said she is glad Sklar's organization will get some credit for the legal precedent it helped set in the Abu Ali case. She also applauded the organization for focusing on the clients, and praised the Abu Ali family's refusal to accept what she said was the stalling and silence of the U.S. government.

"This case has always been about them and Ahmed," she said. "We put a lot of work to bring this to a successful conclusion. . . . The credit is mainly due to the family, for being persistent and being the best advocates that Ahmed could ever have had."


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