Trying for Justice

The legal proceedings for Guantánamo detainees remain inadequate

More than five years after being brought to Guantánamo Bay, Australian David Hicks last week became the first Guantánamo inmate to be convicted of a crime after agreeing to a plea bargain. His surprising sentence includes nine months in prison, a one-year prohibition against speaking to the press, and an agreement not to press charges against U.S. government. Officials at Guantánamo have faced increasing pressure—and Supreme Court orders—to try the individuals being held. This first trial, however, is hardly reassuring; rather, it highlights the government’s lack of transparency and its failure to adhere to reasonable standards of justice.

The prisoners detained at Guantánamo are, according to the Bush administration, among the most dangerous of America’s enemies. Given the recent threats of terrorism against our country, suspected terrorists should be handled carefully and do not necessarily need to be afforded the same rights as American citizens. Nonetheless, there must be a balance between the protective measures taken by U.S. officials and the principles of justice they compromise in the process. The balance has currently swung too far in the direction of injustice.

The Constitution, however, outlines principles and rights that Americans deem essential to a just legal system, which include the right of prisoners to know the charges against them and the right to receive a fair and speedy trial. While the Guantánamo detainees are not American citizens, in 2004 the Supreme Court held that this standard is also applicable to the Guantánamo detainees. In Rasul v. Bush, the Court explicitly denied that Bush administration could rightfully hold the detainees indefinitely without charge.

Nonetheless, the U.S. government has been unacceptably slow in bringing the detainees to trial. It has been nearly three years since the Rasul ruling, and the detainees have now been held in Guantánamo for over five years. Only Hicks has been tried, and prosecutors have indicated plans to charge only 75 to 80 of the nearly 400 prisoners. Despite the purported danger of the prisoners, holding them indefinitely and refusing to formally charge them flouts the principles of justice that the U.S. claims to defend.

Hicks’ sentence raises further questions about how dangerous the prisoners of Guantánamo actually are. He was given only nine months in prison—a sentence whose brevity calls into question why he has been held for five years. Further, the gag order in the plea bargain suggests that the U.S. government is more concerned about what Hicks will say than what he will actually do following his release. Not only is Hicks forbidden from speaking to the press for a year and from filing any lawsuit against America or American officials, but he was required to retract his detailed accusations of torture.

While Hicks’ circumstances themselves are not proof of any misconduct by the U.S. government, the implications are disconcerting. Particularly given the scrutiny over human rights abuses that the Guantánamo prison has faced, the U.S. should make a comprehensive effort to be as transparent as possible and to move forward quickly with trials for all detainees.