A faint glimmer of justice is piercing the grim shadows of U.S. practices at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. Experts from the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Commission announced last week that the U.S. practice of detaining prisoners in perpetuity and without trial is in violation of international law, and UN Secretary General Kofi A. Annan promptly expressed his support for the panel’s demand that Guantanamo be closed. In order to uphold the standards of the Geneva Convention, the Bush administration should comply with the proposals of the UN panel and allow all 500 Guantanamo prisoners access to a trial.
Most of the prisoners currently held at Guantanamo were captured during the invasion of Afghanistan which began in October 2001. Many “Gitmo” detainees have been held for four years without a trial or even the prospect of attaining justice.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld expressed his disagreement with the commission’s report last Friday, saying that “Gitmo” hosts “several hundred terrorists, bad people, people that if let back out on the field would try to kill Americans. That’s just a fact.” The trouble with Rumsfeld’s claim is that he assumes for himself the role of judge and jury, the ability to determine the guilt or innocence of Guantanamo’s inmates. Terrorists must be brought to justice, but before a suspect is deemed a terrorist and imprisoned indefinitely, he must be given access to a trial in order to satisfy the Geneva Convention and the Supreme Court’s June 2004 decision Rasul v. Bush.
Complicating matters further are allegations of prisoner torture at Guantanamo. Rumsfeld and other officials have acknowledged that forceful interrogation and force-feeding of detainees, which many human rights activists consider torture, have occurred at Guantanamo. Meanwhile, Amnesty International issued a report last May that was sharply critical of prisoner treatment, and several British and U.S. newspapers have presented similar allegations. A sweeping deliberation on U.S. treatment of prisoners will take place in May, when the UN Committee Against Torture will commence its hearings.
In the meantime, last week’s UN report draws on information from former detainees and their lawyers, concluding that some of the practices at Guantanamo “must be assessed as amounting to torture.” Administration officials have attacked the report as groundless, since members of the panel have not visited Guantanamo. But the human rights experts’ trip to Guantanamo was cancelled when the U.S. refused to grant them “full and unrestricted access” to the institution, disabling the panel from speaking freely with prisoners.
It is debatable whether the U.S. is torturing its prisoners. That it refuses to bring its inmates to trial, regardless of the inmates’ physical treatment, is inexcusable. Every inmate at Guantanamo must receive a fair guilty or innocent decision in a speedy fashion in order for the U.S. to lay claim to a functioning justice system. Bold prosecution of suspected terrorists is desirable, but indefinite detention of, and violent action toward, men innocent before the law is loathsome to the ideal of fairness.