Saturday, August 11, 2007

Real problems closing Guantanamo

I'm not often all that sympathetic to government justifications for not moving in a contructive direction, but I have to admit there are some valid concerns about releasing certain prisoners from Guantanamo, concerns highlighted by the British government's recent request to release five prisoners with British ties. I think the U.S. government's insistence that the British government place restrictions on the prisoners once they get to Britain -- "secured, meaning they wouldn't be allowed to walk free," in State Dept. spokesman Sean McCormack's words -- is mostly unreasonable.

While the priosoners have been unilaterally declared to be "illegal combatants," the fact remains that they haven't been charged with anything. The whole notion that the default position is imprisoning people with or without charges if the president or somebody else feels like it is gradually turning this country into an authoritarian state governed by arbitrary rules rather than the rule of law.

There are some valid concerns however. Some countries have expressed unwillingness to accept detainess who originated in those countries. One detainee, Ahmed Belbacha, is fighting a move to transfer him to his native country, Algeria, arguing that since he was in the Algerian army jihadists will consider him an enemy and since he was in Guantanamo the government will too. Transfer of some Afghanis is being delayed while a new prison is built there.

Much of the reluctance by other countries is the U.S.'s fault. It wants to dictate what happens to the detainees once they're in other countries. And it has painted some of them as more dangerous than they are. The initial mistake, of course, was to use Guantanamo in the first place. It no doubt seemed OK at the time -- U.S. property but not on U.S. soil so fripperies like due process could be ignored -- but it's become much more complicated. As with so much involving the "war on terror," there wasn't much thinking through to consider possible consequences. It would almost certainly have been better to treat them as POWs or criminals, for both of which accepted procedures are available, rather than this cockamamie "illegal combatant" term.

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