Habeas Corpus Issue: A Fundamental Right Denied
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
October 9, 2006
Now that Congress has given President Bush most of what he wanted regarding the detention and treatment of terrorism suspects, Americans have every reason to view the legislation with mixed feelings.
It's reassuring that the federal government now has new weapons with which to wage America's existential war against a vicious and uncompromising foe. But many legal issues remain troubling and should be challenged in the courts.
None is more troubling than a provision denying terrorism suspects a legal right that is older than the Magna Carta: the right to challenge their detention, and to be told the reasons for it, through habeas corpus petitions. Without a writ of habeas corpus, authorities theoretically could hold someone forever without ever telling him why.
Many of the detainees being held in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba were picked up in wide-net sweeps and may well have had nothing to do with terrorism. Of the 455 detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, only 10 have been charged.
Defenders of this approach point to Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. But that was for uniformed combatants and for a finite period. The war on terror is open-ended, could go on forever, and terrorists don't wear military uniforms.
The Bush administration has cited the lack of uniforms as a reason to ignore the Geneva Conventions. But it shouldn't be able to have it both ways. Because these people don't wear uniforms and are only suspects, mistakes can be made. That is precisely why the reasons for their detention should be clear and their right to challenge it protected. There is no punishment too severe for true terrorists. But first it's necessary to separate terrorists from people merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Justice demands that, and since when does the United States of America not stand for justice?
BOTTOM LINE: Holding people indefinitely without telling them why is unjust and un-American.