Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Radical justice

Robalini's Note: On the other hand...


Comment by Vincent Warren, Exec. Director, Center for Constitutional Rights
Radical justice

For those of us who were there at the beginning, when we filed the first habeas corpus cases almost seven years ago to the day that President Obama ordered Guantanamo closed, today's executive orders are far from radical, although greatly appreciated and much overdue. A long-awaited sigh of relief was heard all around. At last, we have a president in Barack Obama who has committed the nation to uphold the rule of law, restore the constitution and comply with international law.

A radical concept? Not at all. Yet, after the last eight years of rampant and defiant government lawlessness, Barack Obama's executive orders to close Guantanamo and the secret CIA black sites and comply with the Geneva Conventions appear to many as a radical shift.

Still, we are concerned by the lack of specificity in the President's order and its vague timeline. Sadly, the very two issues that prompted the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) to intervene in 2002 remain of concern even in the wake of these remarkable orders. The first issue is what to do about detention, and the second is what we mean by dangerous and who we trust to define it.

If the men at Guantanamo cannot be immediately charged, they must be released or (for those who would face torture or persecution) found safe havens - our Constitution demands it. Those were among the very first words that lawyers uttered on this issue seven years ago. Two presidents, three attorneys general and two secretaries of defense later, we are still saying the same thing. It is clear that President Obama will comply with the rule of law. The men in Guantanamo who have been sitting in jail for years, however, have heard this before. We continue to remind the decision-makers that each additional day being held illegally deepens the injustice for these men. And, for our nation, each additional day these men are held illegally under the Obama administration means the weakening of his promise to uphold our values and the mandates of our law.

CCR issued a report just last week outlining three simple steps to close Guantanamo and put an end to the dark legacy of torture that exists there. We continue to emphasize that there are at least 60 men who are detained at Guantanamo Bay who are at risk of torture or persecution were they to be returned to their countries of origin, and no plan has been detailed for finding them safe haven.

It took George Bush days to send the men into a black hole. Justice demands that this new government work to get them out with in the first 100 days.

On the second issue, who is dangerous and who do we trust to tell us so? Seven years ago, George Bush declared that the first 20 men sent to Guantánamo were the "worst of the worst." The country was scared. CCR and others challenged the government to give us more than just the simple assurance: "trust us." We went to the courts to get the government to put up or shut up by means of the age-old writ of habeas corpus -- the right to go before an impartial court and know the charges against one. First, the government delayed, and when it lost in the courts, it delayed some more, all the time releasing 500 men out of the back door of Guantanamo. Why? Because when we pressed the government through the courts, they could no longer deny the truth - that the vast majority of the men in Guantanamo shouldn't have been there in the first place.

Seven years later, the Bush administration has passed the mantle. Yet all around us, the echoes of the outgoing administration tell us, trust us, these last 245 guys are really the worst of the worst. There are 50, no 80, no 100 who we somehow know are guilty but we don't have the evidence to prosecute or we somehow know may be dangerous in the future so we have to find a way to keep them detained.

What we expect Barack Obama to understand is that our values and the rule of law compel us to challenge him to tell us more than "trust us." In addition, he has the added burden of taking office after some of these men have been in illegal detention for close to a decade. To delay justice is to deny it. We said it then, and we say it now. This time, we are asking the Obama administration to make quick determinations - within 100 days - as to who they intend to try in federal courts and who they intend to release. Then to get to the business of doing both with the speed and efficiency that, up until this moment, defined only illegal government activities. A radical concept? Not at all.

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