Friday, February 20, 2009

Bagram: The New Guantanamo

When he was on the campaign stump, President Barack Obama, then a junior Democratic senator from Illinois and aspiring presidential candidate, vowed he would close the war prison at the Guantanamo Bay. He said the prisoners now held at Guantanamo Bay should be brought to justice. Those guilty of criminal wrongdoing would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Those who have done no wrong would be released.

This to many conservatives seems like a radical proposition. Many (particularly the "law and order" wing of the conservative movement) think we cannot treat war prisoners as criminals or put their right to a speedy trial above our need to safeguard the country from the next terrorist threat or 9-11.

It is now, however a radical proposition. It is the American way. A suspect is hauled before court to face criminal charges. The prosecutor makes his or her case. The defendant gets a rebuttal and a jury weighs the evidence and decides if the suspect is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." There is no doubt some risk. Juries make mistakes and juries can make the right decisions based upon the incomplete evidence which is submitted for them to review. Some Innocent men and women go to jail while some guilty men and women are set free.

The indefinite incarceration of a murderous sociopath or a serial killer is not a given. This risk is accepted since the alternative - the incarceration of the innocent man or woman - is a travesty in justice. We, at the very least, must allow the suspect to challenge and refute the evidence used to justify his or her incarceration.

So when the president, then only a senator running for the White House, promised to reverse course, those of us with a civil libertarian outlook were pleased. To us, Obama's predecessor committed human rights violations by holding captives against their will for an indefinite period of time with no chance to contest their status as "enemy combatants."

We yearned for change and were pleased when he indirectly rebuked outgoing President George W. Bush in his inauguration speech. He firmly rejected the claim that we must choose between liberty and safety. The two were not incompatible. And we were cautiously optimistic when he signed three executive orders distancing himself from his predecessor by signing three executive orders closing Guantanamo Bay and any CIA-maintained facility abroad, and banning torture in spite of the caveats which he put in them.

Late today, however, we heard some information which suggests that the president may be reneging on his promise to give each prisoner a fair hearing. The president has apparently decided to deny the prisoners held at Bagram in Afghanistan the right to contest their status as "enemy war combatants" at a fear hearing.

We did not fight to close Guantanamo Bay, the symbol of most of what is wrong about our fight against the war on terror, to see another base take its place. The same principal that led us to cry out for justice when the president denied the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay their day in court lead us to fight for the rights of those now held at Bagram. The government has no right to serve as a defendant or alleged "enemy combatant's" "judge, jury, and executioner." No government has the right to deprive oneself of his or her "life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness" without "due process of law." And no president can deprive that person of hsi right to a "trial by his peers" unless Congress suspends the writ of habeas corpus.

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," President Barack Obama said in his inaugural address. "Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations."

Yes, we must reject "as false" that "choice between our safety and our ideals."

Yes I do.

Mr. President, yes you must.

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