Back to News & Commentary

An Illusion of Justice

Share This Page
June 4, 2007

Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, is observing the military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay this week. The ACLU is one of only four human rights organizations allowed to monitor the tribunals. Jameel blogged these pre-trial thoughts on this morning:

Today, the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay reconvene for the arraignments of Omar Khadr, a 20-year-old Canadian citizen who has been in U.S. custody since he was 15, and Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni national who is accused of having served as Osama Bin Laden’s chauffeur and bodyguard. To some, the re-initiation of the tribunals will look like a victory in the long-running effort to bring Guantanamo under the rule of law. Having monitored the fits and starts of the tribunal process for several years now, I am not nearly so optimistic.

More than five years have passed since President Bush authorized the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, but it’s possible that Khadr will turn out to be the first prisoner actually tried in this system. This is in part because the Defense Department did not charge any of the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay until June of 2004. Then some of the prisoners who had been charged contested the lawfulness of the military tribunal’s rules, and the tribunals were put on hold while the Supreme Court considered the prisoners’ case. In 2006, the Supreme Court struck down the tribunal’s rules, finding that they violated the Geneva Conventions , and therefore the Uniform Code of Military Justice as well – because they failed to afford “all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.” Not until October 2006 did President Bush sign into law the new set of rules under which Khadr is now about to be tried. (The Australian David Hicks would have been the first to be tried under the new rules but his trial, which was scheduled to begin two months ago, was averted by a last-minute plea bargain.)

Unlike the old rules, the tribunals’ new rules have been endorsed by Congress. But the new rules, like the old ones, are deeply flawed. They permit the use of secret evidence; allow the introduction of evidence that has been extracted through cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; limit the right of defendants to be represented by counsel of their choosing and fail to provide any guarantee that proceedings will be completed within a reasonable time. The rules are profoundly unfair, and those who have been criticizing them have been entirely justified in doing so. The tribunals offer not justice, but the illusion of justice.

But the deeper injustice of Guantanamo does not stem from the unfairness of the tribunals’ rules. Most of the prisoners at Guantanamo have not been charged and will never be brought before the tribunals at all. Some of them have been held for five years already – and there is no end in sight, because the Bush administration has claimed the authority to hold them until the “war on terror” is over. The handful of prisoners who have been charged under the Military Commissions Act will be tried, but there’s no assurance that they will be freed if acquitted. The administration contends that they can be imprisoned indefinitely whether found guilty or not.

It is this situation that is Guantanamo’s deeper injustice, and it is this situation that appears to be driving the prisoners to despair. Last week, a prisoner was found dead in his cell – the fourth prisoner to have committed suicide at Guantanamo. Perhaps it is a variety of this same despair that led Omar Khadr last week to dismiss his American attorneys. Today he will appear with Canadian attorneys – if the tribunal permits these attorneys to represent him – or he will appear on his own, without counsel.

The military tribunals are important – they are the closest thing that Guantanamo has to actual courts, and it is critical, not only for the prisoners but for the U.S. as well, that they be both fair and perceived as fair. But fixing Guantanamo requires more than fixing the tribunals’ rules. Hundreds of men have been held now for three, four, and in some cases more than five years, and the administration insists that it has the power to hold them forever – whether or not they are charged with crimes, and whether or not they are found guilty. This is Guantanamo’s deeper injustice, and in debating the fairness of the tribunals, we should not lose sight of it.

– Jameel Jaffer, Director, ACLU National Security Project

Watch this blog for more updates from the Guantanamo military tribunals all week.