Guantanamo Bay prisoners should be charged or released

Editorial

Even if it is the troubled United Nations Human Rights Commission making the request, it is time to consider closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. At the very least all the prisoners held there should be charged and given a fair trial or released. As the prison is operated now it appears to be a blot on the American tradition of fair play and the rule of law.

The U.N. Human Rights Commission, in a report released last week, says the conditions at Guantanamo are tantamount to torture, including solitary confinement, subjecting prisoners to severe temperatures and threatening them with dogs. The commission relied on interviews with lawyers and former prisoners since the administration would not agree to allow U.N. investigators to interview prisoners individually and privately.

Whether such incidents occurred or whether they were really torture may be open to question. But a number of credible sources have recently raised the issue of arbitrary detention.
Government officials say those at Guantanamo are “the worst of the worst” — dedicated terrorists eager to get back to their home countries and do damage to the United States. Are they really?

The National Journal has done an analysis of 132 prisoners (of about 500 people still being held at Guantanamo) who had habeas corpus petitions filed on their behalf, which required the Defense Department to provide more details about their capture and imprisonment. Of the 132 prisoners, 75 are not accused of taking part in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. Ten of these detainees are “no longer” viewed as “enemy combatants” by the U.S. government, but eight of those 10 are still detained.
Of the 132 men, only 57 are accused of being on a battlefield in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Most of those in Guantanamo seem to have been captured not by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but by other governments — mostly Pakistan — then turned over to the U.S.

The habeas corpus documents examined by the National Journal describe many of the detainees as being “associated” with al-Qaida, but these associations in many cases seem tenuous.

Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s bin Laden unit through 1999 and resigned in 2004 after writing books critical of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts, told the National Journal that by 2002 it was common knowledge in the CIA that only 10 percent of the detainees were high-value terrorist operatives.

The administration has dismissed the U.N. report but has not responded to the National Journal articles or to a report by two Seton Hall University professors (who act as counsel to two detainees). The professors’ report says only 8 percent of the detainees are deemed by the Defense Department to be “fighters for” al-Qaida, while 60 percent are classified only as “associated with” terrorist or terrorist-affiliated groups.

These and other charges may be overblown. And the root problem may have been deciding to ignore the Geneva Convention on POWs, detaining them at a site that is not on U.S. soil and using the blanket, perhaps arbitrary designation of enemy combatant to finesse questions of due process.

The best way to handle all these issues is to charge those at Guantanamo with a crime or release them. To keep them there indefinitely, perhaps for the duration of a “war on terror” that could last decades, is a travesty of the rule of law.