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Beyond Guantanamo

Julia Hall. (photo by Charlotte Hsu)

The Story of Julia Hall and Oybek Jamoldinivich Jabbarov

The SOS from Oybek Jamoldinivich Jabbarov came to Julia Hall in 2007 via his attorney, Michael Mone. The plea for help, originating behind the concrete walls of Guantánamo Bay, carried the message of a man locked in a nightmare.

Misfortune stalked Jabbarov, a long-time detainee at the US prison camp in Cuba. He said he was innocent, and in 2007, he learned that America had cleared him for release. The problem, then, was that he had nowhere to go. In his native Uzbekistan, he would be a target for torture. The United States would not take him in.

Hoping to obtain a letter warning against repatriating Jabbarov to his home country, Mone reached out to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

In response, he got Julia Hall, a lawyer in Buffalo who had worked for the organization for more than 10 years. Prior to 9/11, she had researched police abuses during Northern Ireland’s Troubles and interviewed victims of sexual violence in the Bosnian War. Counterterrorism had become her specialty following the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Hall’s colleagues describe her alternately as shrewd and caring, a woman whose intense intellectual curiosity enables her to make herself an expert on unfamiliar issues in short order. Jabbarov’s story intrigued her from the get-go. She saw in him a victim of circumstance, a man who had lost years of his life due to events beyond his control.

By his account, he was a refugee in Afghanistan in 2001 when a group of Northern Alliance soldiers he met at a roadside teahouse offered him a ride to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. They brought him instead to Bagram Air Base, where they handed him over to US forces. At the time, bounty payments for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters were common, tempting locals to denounce men such as Jabbarov who claimed no connection to extremists.

Jabbarov was in his 20s. To a pregnant wife and young son, he simply vanished one day. He arrived at Guantánamo in 2002, accused of training and fighting with militants. During a tribunal to review whether America had correctly classified him as an enemy combatant, Jabbarov testified that in Afghanistan, he had been nothing more than a trader, buying and selling chickens, goats, and sheep.

“How would I have divided my time?” he asked, according to transcripts of the proceedings. “To work, support my family, and at the same time, get military training, terrorist training, and go to war; logically, it’s impossible.”

Finally, in 2007, freedom seemed close. Jabbarov longed for his wife and children. But first, he had to get out of Guantánamo.

Hall agreed to help, drawn in, she says, by his narrative and Mone’s sincerity, his devotion to “getting justice” for his client “against all odds.”

Finding a country to resettle Jabbarov would be difficult. Still, Hall saw potential in Ireland. She had contacts there through her work during the Troubles, and Mone, Irish in heritage, had connections with Irish-American politicians in Washington, DC. Ireland had condemned human rights violations in Uzbekistan and called for Guantánamo’s closure. Plus, Jabbarov had taught himself English while detained.

The attorneys got to work. In March 2008, on a visit to Guantánamo, Mone drew a map of Europe, showing Jabbarov where Ireland was. Mone and Hall wrote to the Irish government and called in favors from friends. Their lobbying yielded few leads. So Hall came up with another idea: “I said, ‘Let’s just go. Let’s just go. I’ll get on a plane, you get on a plane.’”

“She calls me,” Mone remembers, “in June [2008], and says, ‘You know what? I think we should just go over there, set up some meetings. [I think] they’ll meet with us. We’re from Human Rights Watch. We’ll get some meetings with the foreign affairs and justice departments.’…I said, ‘All right.’”

Stuck at Guantánamo, Jabbarov waited. Through Mone, the Uzbek had learned of Hall, this stranger who seemed to know what to do. Her presence gave him hope in a time of great frustrations.

Julia Hall at home with her husband, Patrick Mahoney. (photo by Charlotte Hsu)

“The work she does is so important,” Mone says. ”The world would be a much better place if there were more people like Julia Hall…She fights for justice. She fights for those who have no voice. She fights for people whom the world has forgotten.”

* * *

The problems of the world seem far away in this three-story brick house in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood, where Hall stands atop a step-stool in the parlor, arranging and rearranging faux red berries from Big Lots on a giant wreath. It is December 19, 2009, a Saturday. In one corner of the room, a Christmas tree sparkles, its white lights shining, dozens of ornaments glimmering. A troop of nutcrackers keeps watch before a fireplace.

“I just love these stupid cranberries,” Hall announces, her copper hair pulled back in a red scrunchy, her green eyes laughing. “The simplest thing.”

Her son Liam, the older of two children, turns 10 in two days, and she and her husband Patrick Mahoney are busy with preparations for the birthday and a holiday party.

“Pat!” Hall calls out suddenly, delighted. “Come and look at the cranberries.”

This is what makes Hall remarkable. She has spent over a decade documenting the world’s atrocities, but the work has not hardened her. The first thing you might notice upon meeting her is an uncommon warmth—those eyes full of laughter, that excitement over life’s simple wonders. She displays none of the acrimony or cynicism you might expect from someone who has seen what she has seen, heard what she has heard.

* * *

Hall, 46, grew up in South Buffalo. The area was largely homogeneous—white, blue-collar, Roman Catholic. Her father was a coke oven worker at Bethlehem Steel. It was a time, Hall remembers, when “the whole social life really, in many ways, revolved around your parish.” The family’s church was St. John the Evangelist.

Her parents invested what little money they had in education. Hall went to Mt. Mercy Academy. Four siblings attended Catholic high schools, too. The upbringing—teachers who preached community service, collections for the poor during Lent—instilled in the children a commitment to social justice. Their mother, who had trained to be a nun before marrying, taught them to put others’ needs before their own.

When the time came for college, Hall chose Fordham University, a Jesuit institution in New York City. As an adult, she would struggle with her religion, with problems including what she viewed as discrimination against women within the tradition. But as a teenager, “I chose a Catholic college because I wanted to go to a Catholic college,” she says. She credits the church “for helping me define myself.”

* * *

The world had always been a huge and exciting place. As a girl, Hall had pleaded for permission to take the bus, and when her parents granted it, she navigated the city on her own. At home, she would travel through literature, perching on window ledges to get light for reading, wrapped up, always, in some adventure.

Her explorations continued into adulthood. At Fordham, she studied political science, French literature, and Arabic. She decided she wanted to go overseas and won a Fulbright fellowship to make that happen, spending the year after graduation in Cairo at the American University.

It was 1985. She read the Qur’an. She made friends with students from Egypt. She worked on her Arabic and studied under professors such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a democracy activist later jailed for his politics. She discovered the world was a complicated place. She learned that the Arab-Israeli conflict wasn’t just about religion, but about resources—who gets the water in the desert—too. She would carry that lesson with her forever: No conflict is dichotomous, no problem simple.

“That year,” Hall says, “was a really humbling year. You realize how much you don’t know.”

Afterwards, she went on to live in Cairo, Bangkok, and Canberra, Australia’s capital. Then, in 1992, Hall says, “I really missed my family…so I came home. And I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do.”

* * *

The years that followed passed in a whirlwind. In 1993, Hall earned a masters of sociology at the University at Buffalo, started law school there, and married Mahoney, a businessman who would later become a physical therapist.

Detainees at Guantanamo Bay. (Department of Defense photo)

She interned in Geneva at the United Nations Centre for Human Rights in 1994. The summer after, she went to the Hague, studying and working on gender issues for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the UN court that handled war crimes in the Balkans. She graduated at the top of her class in 1996 and left Buffalo for New York City again that fall. She had beat out students from the nation’s top law schools for a fellowship at Human Rights Watch, where she would work until early 2009.

* * *

“I remember flying into Yugoslavia the first time after the war,” Hall says. “It was 1996, 1997. The war had just ended, and flying into Sarajevo, which I had done before, Yugoslavia’s this beautiful, green, lush country. And I was flying in. [And as the plane got closer] what you really saw were just bombed-out villages.”

“It was so interesting, because when I was there in the ’80s on this three-week trip that I took, it seemed to me that people really did co-exist in this very lovely way,” Hall says. She likens what happened in the Balkans to Blue Velvet, a David Lynch film in which “they’re going through the fields of this beautiful town, and all of a sudden they found this severed ear.”

The rancor and resentments that fueled the fighting leading to Yugoslavia’s dissolution were many and complicated—ethnic, religious, historical, territorial. The crimes were ugly. Hall documented the stories of women in 17 towns and villages, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian. They talked about rape camps, horrors some experts call acts of genocide.

The interviews in the Balkans were the first of many Hall conducted for Human Rights Watch. While researching how to design a neutral police force in Northern Ireland, where ethno-political conflicts had left thousands dead, she traveled there dozens of times to gather information. On tours of European detention centers holding migrants who faced deportation, she encountered pregnant women and unaccompanied minors, men who took turns sleeping on shared mattresses.

Following 9/11, torture flowered. Abu Ghraib and waterboarding made the news. Interrogations took place in secret CIA prisons. Plane spotters, hobbyists around the world who track landings and takeoffs, began to notice unusual flight patterns. Their observations helped uncover extraordinary renditions, in which men apprehended in one nation were sent to another for questioning.

Hall served as an advisor to attorneys of terrorism suspects transferred from the US and Europe to countries where torture occurred. She called attention to the failure of diplomatic assurances—promises between governments—to stop torture in rendition cases. The problem, virtually unknown before she began investigating it, was one of many she and Human Rights Watch helped unearth.

Like her earlier efforts on behalf of migrants, Hall’s work on counterterrorism inspired little public sympathy. In 2008, she monitored the military trial at Guantánamo of Osama bin Laden’s driver and described, in a column for, her dismay over a grainy film she saw showing the man slumped on the floor, hooded and shackled, after his capture.

Hall is no apologist for terrorists—she considers terrorism “one of the worst” human rights violations that exists—but she believes the ban on torture must be absolute. No exceptions.

“I never went into human rights work thinking I would ever work on torture,” Hall says, “because there had been so much progress made…Governments that continued to practice it denied it because they understood that there was a global consensus against torture.

“The fall from grace,” she says, “was absolutely astonishing.”

* * *

Life was chaotic, with Hall traveling often. Nevertheless, as years passed, she and Mahoney began to think about children. They convened a series of “summits,” with notebooks, martinis and hors d’oeuvres, to discuss the issue.

Not long after, in 1999, they returned to Buffalo and reveled in Hall’s first pregnancy. She thought carrying a baby was “very interesting,” and found it “absolutely fantastic” to be “acceptably big.” She and Mahoney charted changes in her body. One day, as her due date neared, they went dancing at Nietzsche’s on Allen Street. Two days later, Liam was born.

Hall balanced her career with motherhood. Human Rights Watch let her work from Buffalo. So did Amnesty International, which recruited her in 2009 as an expert on counterterrorism in Europe. These days, when Hall isn’t flying to meetings across the Atlantic, she works from home, often rising at five a.m. to “be on Europe time.” She tolerates the odd hours because she is committed to staying in Buffalo: “I just feel so strongly that this city is a great place to bring up my children. It’s a city that’s got such a big heart.”

When Hall is present, she assists with homework and activities. Liam plays baseball. Katie, seven, is a Brownie. Both practice piano and Irish dancing. Mahoney says the siblings do fine in their mother’s absences. ”That’s all they’ve ever known, is that their mom travels.”

Mahoney, who works full time, says he goes “into a survival mode” when Hall leaves. But an equal partnership is the hallmark of their marriage. Hall volunteers at Liam and Katie’s schools. When summer vacation begins, she arranges child care, schedules piano lessons, and pays for dance classes. She is the one, Mahoney says, “that reminds me, ‘Pat, you need to get a birthday card for your mother today.’”

“I’m just amazed,” he says, “that she is able to do so much.”

Hall considers parenthood life’s great challenge. As a mother, she agonizes—“Am I making the right choices on behalf of this human being?”

“I really wanted to be a parent because it felt to me like my world was very big,” she says. “I had traveled all over and did these things, blah, blah, blah, but it seemed like there was something missing in terms of my personal human development.”

“Every parent wants their kids to be happy,” she says, “but I have bigger aspirations. I want them to do no harm. I basically want them to go out in to the world and use every privilege that they had…and I want them to do good.”

* * *

The world casts a spotlight on Guantánamo and men such as Jabbarov live in the shadows. They exist in a state of contradiction. They are the center of attention. Yet they are nothing. We know them as detainees. We read about them in the news. We debate their guilt and innocence and proffer opinions on how their futures should unfold. But for the most part we do not know their names. We do not know their faces or their stories. In our mind’s eye they appear as silhouettes, featureless, colorless, nondescript.

A typical cell in a Guantanamo Bay detention center. (Department of Defense photo)

In Ireland to lobby for Jabbarov in 2008, Hall and Mone met with members of parliament and representatives of the justice department and ministries of interior and foreign affairs. Many officials were dumbfounded, Hall recalls. They wondered, “Why in the world would we take an Uzbek in Guantánamo Bay?”

The attorneys made their pitch: Jabbarov was wrongfully detained. The danger in Uzbekistan was real. The US had labeled Jabbarov a member of a militant Islamist group in Central Asia, and Uzbek interrogators visiting Guantánamo had allegedly threatened to harm him if he returned home. He wanted to live in a democracy. He spoke English. He had a son he had never seen. Through such sketches, Jabbarov, previously a question mark, took shape as an individual.

Crucially, Hall and Mone argued that in an American election year, welcoming a detainee would build goodwill with the incoming president, Barack Obama or John McCain.

“[The Irish] wouldn’t send soldiers to Iraq, so they were frozen out during the Bush era…They wanted to re-engage the US,” Hall says, “and we thought we could present them with a way of doing that.

“We were able to package it in a way that made the most sense for Ireland,” she adds. “It wasn’t just about Oybek, because the humanitarian impulse only goes so far.”

“So in July 2008, we think we’ve done it,” Mone says. With talks on Guantánamo taking place at a high political level, information was scarce. But rumors had spread that the Americans had approached the Irish about Jabbarov.

“July turns into August,” Mone says. “August turns into September.” He returned to Dublin in November for a second round of meetings. But December brought more disappointment, with Ireland’s minister of justice saying the government was not contemplating relocating detainees.

Hall and Mone pressed on, rallying their contacts to push for Jabbarov’s transfer. And slowly attitudes began to shift. Ireland’s foreign affairs minister went public with support for opening his country to Guantánamo refugees. Some Irish officials, repeating Hall and Mone’s refrain, were saying that cooperating on resettlement would be a way to score points with the new Obama administration.

The jackpot came in June of 2009. “State accepts two Uzbek detainees from Guantánamo,” the headline in the Irish Times read. The nightmare was over. The plane carrying Jabbarov to Ireland landed in September. Soon after, he was reunited there with his wife and sons.

“They took him,” Mone says, and laughs. “I can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.” He reflects on that first call he made to Human Rights Watch in 2007: “All I was looking for was a letter admonishing the United States government…And instead, what I got was this incredible person who threw herself into my client’s case.”

In the end, the story of Julia Hall and Oybek Jamoldinivich Jabbarov is a story about promise in an ugly world. It is a story about what is possible, about the good that can come to those who hold out hope.

In October 2009, during a visit to Ireland, Mone punched Hall’s number into his cell phone.

“Julia,” he remembers saying. “I’m here in Ireland…There’s somebody who wants to talk to you.”

Hall waited. Then she heard Jabbarov’s voice on the line. The two had never spoken before.

“I was so surprised that he called me,” Hall says, “because usually, when you do this work, you never see who you’re working on behalf of.

“To have him call and say thank you was—it was just so—” Her eyes sparkle as she searches for the word. “Gratifying,” she decides. “Just really gratifying.”

Hall asked about the weather in Ireland. Jabbarov talked about his new apartment. The chat was brief, nothing unusual. ”Just an ordinary, superficial conversation,” Hall says, “which was so extraordinary to have.”

Charlotte Hsu is a freelance contributor to Artvoice. A former reporter for the Las Vegas Sun, she now works in the University at Buffalo’s communications office. She writes about Buffalo at

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