Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, July 14, 2006

Really good news on the detainee front

The African-American columnist Bob Herbert has been for several years a consistent and courageous voice for human rights and human dignity. In his column in the July 23 New York Times, he hails the self-sacrificing work of the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose lawyers could be making a lot more money working somewhere else. Here is some of what he writes:

The Center for Constitutional Rights, in a new report documenting myriad abuses at Guantánamo, noted that a prisoner named Hadj Boudella was told by military intelligence officers: “You are in a place where there is no law. We are the law.”

Lawyers from the Center, a public-interest organization in New York, have fought long and heroically to bring even the most minimal legal protections to the prisoners. Along the way it was learned that the inmates at Guantánamo were far from "the worst of the worst" [Rumsfeld's description]. Many of them, it turned out, were no danger to the United States at all.

In an article in January 2005, The Wall Street Journal said, “Commanders now estimate that up to 40 percent of the 549 current detainees probably pose no threat and possess no significant information”...The Center’s report quotes one general as saying, in the fall of 2004...“Sometimes we just don’t get the right folks.”

Not only were the legal rights of the prisoners at Guantánamo dispensed with, but their basic human rights were trampled. Prisoners were beaten, sexually humiliated, denied essential medical treatment, deprived of sleep for days and weeks at a time, held in solitary confinement for periods exceeding a year...

The courts, in large part because of the efforts of the Center, have slowed the administration’s descent into barbarism at Guantánamo. In June 2004, in a case brought by the center, the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners at Guantánamo had the right to challenge the legal and factual basis of their detention in U.S. courts.

Two weeks ago, in another landmark ruling, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the court declared that the Guantánamo detainees were covered by a provision of the Geneva Conventions known as Common Article 3. It prohibits cruel and inhumane treatment and requires that prisoners receive “all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized people...”

“The opinion in Hamdan is really historic,” said Bill Goodman, the Center’s legal director. “On the one hand, it tells the executive branch that it will not be free to act as it chooses...At the same time, it acknowledges as part of American law certain international minimums of decency, morality and ethics, and those are encompassed in Common Article 3...”

I asked Mr. Goodman why Americans should care about the treatment of the detainees.

He said: “It’s important for the American people to know that this has been done in their name so that they can disavow it, disclaim it. We have to hold ourselves up to a mirror. We have to see what we have done. And at that point, we have to say, ‘Oh, my God, we can’t do this anymore.’ ”