Thursday, June 29, 2006

Guantanamo Bay Tribunals Illegal

"I'd like to end Gitmo, like it to be over with," the president said at a European Union summit in Vienna. World leaders pressured President Bush to close the camp, and last week he was considering doing so, noting he would decide after the court ruled. Now he has that opportunity.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday strongly limited the power of the Administration to conduct military tribunals for suspected terrorists imprisoned at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The 5-3 ruling means officials will have to come up with a new policy to prosecute at least 10 so-called "enemy combatants" awaiting trial. And though the Court did not address the government's right to detain suspects, this case was a major test of Bush's authority as commander in chief during war.

President Bush has aggressively asserted the power of the government to capture, detain and prosecute suspected terrorists in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. At the center of the case is Yemeni national, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, captured in Afghanistan in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Officials have said he admitted being a personal assistant, bodyguard and driver to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In its ruling, the court said: "Whether or not the government has charged Hamdan with an offence against the law of war…the commission lacks power to proceed. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority stated further, "The military commission at issue is not expressly authorized by any congressional act, the tribunals must be understood to incorporate at least the barest of those trial protections that have been recognized by customary international law. In undertaking to try Hamdan and subject him to criminal punishment, the executive [Bush] is bound to comply with the rule of law that prevails in this jurisdiction.”

Hamdan's lawyers argued that Bush exceeded his authority by setting up military commissions to try terrorist suspects, whom the administration terms "enemy combatants," rather than prisoners of war. They also argued that the government's charge of conspiracy against Hamdan was not allowed under international standards of law for prisoners of war, noting that earlier federal courts had rejected that standard, since it was too broadly defined.

The Administration's position is something that the public knows already: detainees do not have the rights usually afforded prisoners of war, as outlined in the Geneva Conventions. The enemy combatant designation, according to the Bush administration, means the suspect can be held without charges in a military prison without the protections of the U.S. criminal justice system, such as the right to counsel, a status the court rejected, and using strong language the court stated, "The procedures adopted to try Hamdan violate the Geneva Conventions.”

The implications of the decision are profound, the Bush Administration will either have to court-martial the detainees or try them as civilians (something they wish not to do). However, the ruling by the court failed in one major aspect. The Supreme Court did not demand the release of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, instead giving the Administration an opportunity to come up with another way of trying those held. To use an analogy, it is rather like telling a bully to stop hitting kids on the playground with a stick, but not disciplining the actual bad behavior.

As the BBC noted, the US Supreme Court's decision to strike down the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay perhaps heralds the beginning of what will be a long-drawn out endgame for the camp. It is hopeful that such an endgame is sooner, rather than later.

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