As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Don't Make Bagram Guantanamo II

Today the Justice Department announced that Ali al-Marri, the last enemy combatant held inside the United States, would be charged and tried in a federal court in Illinois. This is a major victory for the rule of law. Instead of being held indefinitely without due process or habeas corpus, al-Marri will be given charges and prosecuted in an American courtroom, not a military commission. All Guantanamo prisoners deserve the same courtesy - either be tried, or released. In addition, we will probably get a ruling on al-Marri's detention anyway, which would be positive to set the precedent:

The Supreme Court already agreed to consider a challenge to the constitutionality of al-Marri’s detention, and the ACLU is asking the Court still to consider that case. According to Al-Marri’s attorney, the ACLU’s Jonathan Hafetz, “it is vital that the Supreme Court case go forward because it must be made clear once and for all that indefinite military detention of persons arrested in the U.S. is illegal and that this will never happen again.”

There is another group of detainees that should be extended the rights of being tried or released - those at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan who were transferred there from around the world. The expansion of Bagram has raised fears that Obama may use it the way George Bush used Guantanamo.

Now, human rights groups say they are becoming increasingly concerned that the use of extra-judicial methods in Afghanistan could be extended rather than curtailed under the new U.S. administration. The air base is about to undergo a $60 million expansion that will double its size, meaning it can house five times as many prisoners as remain at Guantanamo.

Apart from staff at the International Red Cross, human rights groups and journalists have been barred from Bagram, where former prisoners say they were tortured by being shackled to the ceiling of isolation cells and deprived of sleep.

The base became notorious when two Afghan inmates died after the use of such techniques in 2002, and although treatment and conditions have been improved since then, the Red Cross issued a formal complaint to the U.S. government in 2007 about harsh treatment of some prisoners held in isolation for months.

While the majority of the estimated 600 prisoners are believed to be Afghan, an unknown number -- perhaps several dozen -- have been picked up from other countries.

Hilzoy had a great piece about this, showing the genuinely conflicting issues at play here. But one thing seems fairly obvious - if we are going to restore our moral authority around the world, we need to have the same standard for those detainees at Bagram not detained in the course of military conflict as we ought to have for those at Guantanamo. That's not just true of the Muslim world, where support for Al Qaeda itself is mixed, but strongly in favor of their efforts to drive the United States off their land, through force if necessary. It's also true of our allies in Europe, who will not work with us on key issues if we just rebuild Guantanamo at Bagram.

In one of his first acts in office, President Barack Obama ordered the closure within one year of Guantanamo Bay, where about 245 people are still detained and which has been widely viewed as a stain on the U.S. human rights record.

But Obama has yet to decide what to do about the jail at Bagram, where more than 600 prisoners are held, or whether to continue work on a $60 million prison complex there.

Washington wants the EU to help it close Guantanamo by agreeing to accept discharged prisoners who cannot be returned to their own countries for fear of torture.

But a confidential EU policy paper, obtained by Reuters, said such help would depend on Washington's overall anti-terrorism policies, including assurances that Bagram or other camps would not become new Guantanamos.

"I would find it very surprising, if the (U.S.) policy remained the same while Guantanamo was closed, to see the EU mobilize itself," EU anti-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove told Reuters.

The EU policy paper said: "It would not be in conformity with EU fundamental rights policies to simply transfer Guantanamo elsewhere (i.e. in Bagram) without solving the underlying question of the detention of terror suspects for indefinite time and without trial."

This is going to undermine our efforts at global cooperation if it is allowed to fester. Obama's honeymoon around the world will quickly come to an end. We will have lost a great opportunity to push the reset button.

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