Notwithstanding the impending repatriation of five British detainees and one Danish prisoner incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, the Bush administration has further undermined the basic legal and democratic rights of those held in the infamous military prison with the announcement of a new measure that will institutionalise the illegal detentions.
On February 13, the Pentagon announced that it would establish “administrative review panels” to determine the future of the hundreds held in Guantanamo Bay. Pentagon spokesmen claimed that the three-member panels would act like a “quasi-parole board” and allow prisoners to plea their case for release. The status of the prisoners would be reviewed annually, spokesmen said.
The so-called “review panels” have nothing to do with granting any rights to detainees, most of whom have been held for more than two years without charge or access to lawyers or their families. To compare them to parole boards established to review the prison terms for convicted criminals is simply absurd. Rather, the new panels will simply make permanent the present arbitrary procedures under which hundreds of prisoners seized in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere are being held indefinitely in breach of international law.
As US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Miami Chamber of Commerce on February 13, the Bush administration regards the ongoing detentions in Guantanamo Bay as a “security necessity” and some detainees might never be released. Rumsfeld said that although it was “unusual” to detain people without trial or lawyers “America was a nation at war” and “different rules [now] applied”. Criminal law was not appropriate to those jailed who were involved in acts of terror against America and could therefore be held for “as long as necessary”.
The “review panels”, which will be appointed by Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials, are internal bodies with no independence whatsoever. They will include the same intelligence operatives and military interrogators, who grilled the prisoners. There is no right of appeal or guaranteed legal representations for prisoners brought before the panels. Nor are those charged and found not guilty of any alleged crimes by a US military tribunal, guaranteed release or repatriation.
As an unnamed senior Pentagon spokesman told the New York Times on February 13: “[W]hether a person is to be charged before a military commission is not the reason we’re holding them.” It was possible, the official continued, “that an individual could be convicted by a tribunal and serve a five-year sentence and then not be released if he were judged to be a danger.”
Center for Constitutional Rights president Michael Ratner, who is leading a US Supreme Court appeal for the Guantanamo Bay prisoners to be given legal hearings in American courts, immediately denounced the review panels and said he was stunned by Rumsfeld’s brazen defence of the illegal detentions.
“The idea that you could theoretically keep someone locked up forever under these circumstances is reprehensible,” he said. “It’s nothing to do with law as any person should understand it, at least since the Magna Carta,” he said. “How do you know without a trial that these people are even dangerous? It all depends on the military’s word.”
Amnesty International rejected White House claims that the panels constituted fair treatment for the detainees. “That is a sham,” William Schulz, Amnesty International US executive director, said. “It’s not justice to jail a man without charge for years, then offer him a chance to protest his innocence tarred by a presumption of guilt.”
Stephen Kenny, lawyer for David Hicks, one of the two Australians held in Guantanamo Bay and due to face a military trial on as yet unspecified charges, said the review panels were “a pitiful effort to give some show of a process” in the face of growing international criticism.
He called for Hicks’s immediate release and said there should have been independent hearings to determine whether detainees were prisoners of war or criminals. If they were POWs they should be treated under international conventions while criminals should be tried. Two years after being placed in Guantanamo Bay, Hicks had still not been formally charged with anything, he said.
Guantanamo Bay breaches the Geneva Conventions on the rights of POWs and is an international human rights scandal. Prisoners have no basic rights, no contact with the outside world, apart from heavily censored letters, and are subjected to interrogation by military and intelligence officers.
Over the last two years the Pentagon has increased the number of those held from just over 100 to approximately 660 prisoners. As well as hundreds of small metal cages and shipping containers used as cells, other jails have been built, including Camp Iguana, which is used to hold at least 10 prisoners under the age of 18.
Another jail, Camp Echo, is currently being built which will contain permanent interrogation rooms and cells for those defined as “pre-commission detainees”—those selected to face military tribunals. This solid-wall prison, which will be finished in the next five months, will hold at least 100 detainees.
When questioned at a Washington press briefing, Paul Butler, US deputy assistant secretary of defence for special operations, refused to provide any details on the most basic issues. He would not say if detainees brought before the new panels would have the right to a lawyer or to any form of legal appeal. When pressed he made clear that the final say would rest where it does at present—with the military and the Bush administration.
Like the new buildings being erected at Guantanamo Bay, the proposed panels simply confirm that what was initially established as a temporary measure following the US military intervention in Afghanistan is being transformed into a permanent concentration camp. The Bush administration is creating its own American gulag for arbitrary and indefinite incarceration not only of the existing detainees but those seized in any future wars of aggression.
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