commentary (2006-08)

We’ve imprisoned ‘suspects’ there long enough without trials

Gitmo Embarrassment

by Barry Henderson

When the United Nations-commissioned report by an independent panel of human-rights investigators called for the closing of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and said that the 500 detainees there should be brought before an independent court, the U.S. Government’s official reaction amounted to “mind your own business.”

The irony of the U.S. position on the prisoners, some of whom have been in detention at the outpost on Cuba for four years, should be lost on no one.

When the United States wheedles a human-rights stance from the U.N., calling for some other country’s reform, and the U.N. is rebuffed, this government is openly outraged at the offending nation, and U.N. opponents declare the organization impotent and unresponsive to human-rights abuses.

The Gitmo report, which will be presented formally to the U.N. Commission on Civil Rights next month, accused the United States of conducting its imprisonment of the detainees in an atmosphere of torture, which was promptly denied by the White House and Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld.

There are aspects of detention without trial, though, that amount to torture, whether or not actual physical abuse is involved. The U.N.’s investigators said the imprisonment of persons for years on end without formal charges being brought was arbitrary detention and that the prisoners should either be released or taken before an independent tribunal to determine why they are being held and whether they are guilty or innocent of the terroristic inclinations that the United States uses as an excuse to keep them in prison.

That reads eerily like the position the United States takes against other countries that hold people without due process for lengthy periods as suspects in questionable “crimes.”

If these are, as Rumsfeld says, “bad people, people if they went back out on the field they would try to kill Americans,” and if no one is being abused or tortured, let’s let someone besides the Bush administration and the military establishment make that determination.

The administration keeps saying that the U.N. investigators were invited to inspect the Guantanamo facility and turned the invitation down. The fact that the U.N. would have been denied access to the prisoners themselves for private interviews isn’t mentioned by the administration, which was itself offput by such a tactic by Iraqi authorities not so long ago when the United States was desperate to prove that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.

Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, ordinarily a reasonable man, says that, while he does not agree with every assertion in the report, he supports the panel’s opposition to people being held in perpetuity without being prosecuted in a public court. “The basic premise, that we need to be careful to have a balance between effective action against terrorism and individual liberties and civil rights, I think is valid,” Annan is quoted as saying.

The U.N. leader sounds like a U.S. president talking, but not this president. The Bush administration has remained adamant that its detainees at Gitmo, and perhaps in other “secret” detention facilities that may be maintained in other parts of the world, are prisoners of war under international law and may be held legally for the duration of the “war on terror.”

President Bush himself has said that the security of the United States and its allies hangs in the balance in that war, though its conduct in Afghanistan and Iraq seems to indicate that the conflict might well proceed ad infinitum. There’s not much in the way of a feeling of security to be drawn from that notion, as it implies that there are far, far more than 500 sworn enemies to contend with.

To be sure, there seems to be no valid reason for opening the Gitmo gates and turning out the 500 who are held there, releasing them without regard to their presumed disposition against the United States. But prosecution and trials before a U.N.-sponsored international court could cleanse this government’s hands of the legitimate charge that it is denying due process to its prisoners. We can’t possibly think seriously about exporting our constitutional democracy unless we hold ourselves, meaning our government, to our own standards in the detention of criminal suspects, foreign or domestic. And what are those standards?

Where’s the evidence that the prisoners are terrorist pawns? What’s the risk in putting them before an independent judge with proper credentials to hear our government’s charges and the detainees’ defenses?

They aren’t of the stature of an Osama bin Laden, the admitted leader of the Al Qaida movement that continues to thrive and grow internationally on terror talk and threat to bury us in Jihad. He proceeds without these supposed underlings or erstwhile supporters. Bin Laden, the personification of terrorism, walks, by the way. Please don’t let’s forget that.