Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Injustice of Indefinite Detention

Prisoner: Why I am here?

Guard: You’re wife was murdered.

Prisoner: And you think I did it?

Guard: Spouses are often the ones responsible when their partner is murdered.

Prisoner: Then when is my court date?

Guard: You’re not going to have one.

Prisoner: Then you’re releasing me?

Guard: No.

Prisoner: You can’t hold me here without planning to give me a trial!

Guard: Yes I can. You might be guilty and therefore you’re too dangerous to release. It’s too bad we don’t have enough evidence to bring you to trial.

Everyone can recognize the injustice of this scenario. And it is the exact situation that 47 of the prisoners at Guantanamo find themselves in. But instead of being suspected of murdering their wives, the prisoners are accused of connections to terrorism.

On September 14, 2001 Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force which authorized the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terror against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.”

President Bush and President Obama interpreted this law as allowing the indefinite detention of Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects without charge or trial. Courts have upheld this presidential power “until the end of hostilities.” As the War on Terror, or as Obama likes to say “the war against Al Qaeda,” is endless, so is this power.

The core of Guantanamo is the concept of indefinite detention. What do you do with the people that you think might be guilty but don’t have the evidence to prove that they are in a court of law? Both the President and Congress believe that these people should be imprisoned until they die. In their view the greater harm would come from releasing someone who does have ties to terrorism than in keeping an innocent man in prison. And indeed there have been a few former Guantanamo prisoners who were militants that returned to the battlefield after they were released. The exact number is hard to determine, but it is likely small compared to the number of prisoners who haven’t.

I think the greater harm comes from wrongly imprisoning an innocent person. It is also possible that some of the prisoners in this group are guilty of working with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but played minor roles. No civilized country can adopt a policy whereby it keeps prisoners locked up for the rest of their lives without a trial. That is a power that is fit only for tyrants and despots. 

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