I was driving home from the university when I first heard about Thursday's 5-4 Supreme Court decision with respect to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Yahoo described it this way:
". . . foreign detainees held for years at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba have the right to appeal to U.S. civilian courts to challenge their indefinite imprisonment without charges."
One of the first phrases I learned by heart in elementary school was ". . . all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Those words were written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 as the opening of the Declaration of Independence. I still remember the enormous pride I took as a child in pledging my allegiance to the Republic of the United States of America. I have always identified myself as an American with pride and with a sense of purpose.
In recent years, my confidence in what it means to be an American has taken a drubbing. This was especially true when I learned our current administration did not believe that we should extend the same right of habeas corpus to foreigners that we extend to our own citizens.
In case you've forgotten, habeas corpus demands that a person be brought before a judge to answer to the crimes for which s/he is charged. It forces prosecutors to produce the prisoner and justify his or her imprisonment.
A Joint Task Force of the American military has been operating three detention camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba since 2002. Some of the detainees have been held for six years without ever having a hearing.
Forget the Declaration of Independence. The Bush administration went even further. It made the argument that the prisoners at Guantanamo were enemy combatants, not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, the international standard for humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war dating back to our own Civil War.
The Supreme Court ruled two years ago in June, 2006 against this administration's interpretation, forcing the Department of Defense to issue a command that the Guantanamo Bay detainees be afforded the protection of the Geneva Conventions.
There were a total of 775 detainees at Gitmo. Approximately 420 of them have been released without ANY charges being brought against them, which certainly suggests that the authorities did not have enough evidence to prosecute. Last month, the BBC reported, "The Pentagon has said 36 former inmates who were released are 'confirmed or suspected of having returned to terrorism'."
On the surface that says 9% of the prisoners released were terrorists. However, I am suspicious of the words "are suspected." This administration's record of suspicions proving to be accurate is not one to envy. I'd like to know how many "are confirmed" to having returned to terrorism.
Moreover, I'd be willing to bet we might have created some new terrorists out of the men unjustly held for six years without reason. And while focussing on the 36 possible terrorists, let's not forget the 384 prisoners released who have apparently just gone on to try and pick up the broken pieces of their former lives without posing any threat at all to the United States of America.
The Yahoo news story said this:
At its heart, the 70-page ruling says that the detainees have the same rights as anyone else in custody in the United States to contest their detention before a judge. [Justice] Kennedy also said the system the administration has put in place to classify detainees as enemy combatants and review those decisions is not an adequate substitute for the right to go before a civilian judge . . .
[Justice] Souter wrote a separate opinion in which he emphasized the length of the detentions.
"A second fact insufficiently appreciated by the dissents is the length of the disputed imprisonments; some of the prisoners represented here today having been locked up for six years," Souter said. "Hence the hollow ring when the dissenters suggest that the court is somehow precipitating the judiciary into reviewing claims that the military ... could handle within some reasonable period of time" . . .
The court has ruled twice previously that people held at Guantanamo without charges can go into civilian courts to ask that the government justify their continued detention. Each time, the administration and Congress, then controlled by Republicans, changed the law to try to close the courthouse doors to the detainees.
The court specifically struck down a provision of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that denies Guantanamo detainees the right to file petitions of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is a centuries-old legal principle, enshrined in the Constitution, that allows courts to determine whether a prisoner is being held illegally.
The head of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents dozens of prisoners at Guantanamo, welcomed the ruling.
"The Supreme Court has finally brought an end to one of our nation's most egregious injustices," said CCR Executive Director Vincent Warren. "By granting the writ of habeas corpus, the Supreme Court recognizes a rule of law established hundreds of years ago and essential to American jurisprudence since our nation's founding."
I'm probably not the only one who finds it ironic that President Bush claims we are fighting the war in Iraq to bring democracy to the Middle East at the same time we are ignoring the central tenets of our own Declaration of Independence and the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution (the right to a speedy trial) in our interactions with prisoners in that same war.
The strength of this country is and always has been the ability for good people to overturn the excesses of misguided, corrupt, stupid, or arrogant leaders.