Guantanamo ruling may end the nightmare

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that recognizes the rights of Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detention in U.S. civilian courts is a serious rebuke of the controversial detention policies of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. It also may pave the way for the facility’s permanent closure.

However, this is also an excellent opportunity for the Bush administration to demonstrate its commitment to American security while simultaneously beginning to heal a rift that has harmed the global standing of the United States, particularly in the Muslim world.

America’s image has taken a beating from the revelations of torture and abuse at Guantanamo and at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. These facilities have housed terrorism suspects rounded up since 9/11. U.S. officials say many are guilty, but human rights activists ask how they can be so certain without legal protocol.

Most of the some 270 prisoners still at Guantanamo have been in U.S. custody more than six years without ever having been charged with a crime, according to the June 2008 Human Rights Watch report “Locked Up Alone: Detention Conditions and Mental Health at Guantanamo.”

Suspects have been detained in conditions that amount to cruel and inhuman punishment, marking serious breaches of the prisoners’ basic human and health rights. Practices have included force-feeding prisoners, jabbing food tubes up their noses, and keeping them in prolonged isolation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says these practices amount to torture. In 2004, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton reported “increasing evidence that doctors, nurses and medics have been compliant in torture and other illegal procedures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.” The ICRC charged that U.S. interrogators had flagrantly engaged the participation of medical personnel in “a violation of medical ethics.”

Detainees at Guantanamo spend an average of 22 hours a day by themselves in cells lacking natural light or fresh air. Occasionally they may be visited by an attorney or an ICRC representative, but for the most part they are cut off from family, friends and even each other.

The prolonged isolation not only violates international legal obligations but also can create or aggravate mental health problems that may lead to suicide. It is estimated that there have been four suicides and hundreds of suicide attempts by prisoners at Guantanamo.

In June 2006, three detainees were found dead in what the Pentagon called an “apparent suicide pact.” Barbara Olshansky of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has represented up to 300 Guantanamo prisoners, said detainees “have this incredible level of despair that they will never get justice.” Prison commander Rear Adm. Harry Harris, however, said the deaths were not an act of desperation but rather “an act of asymmetric warfare against us.”

Many prisoners released from Guantanamo have complained of beatings, sleep deprivation, prolonged constraint in uncomfortable positions, forced feedings and injections, sexual and religious humiliation, and other physical and psychological abuse. These accusations were confirmed by ICRC investigators. The Bush administration has consistently rejected the findings.

In a series of reports, Amnesty International has called the situation in Guantanamo “a human rights scandal.” But the June 12 Supreme Court ruling allows cause for some optimism.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, commented that “The Supreme Court decision has stripped Guantanamo of its reason for being: a law-free zone where prisoners can’t challenge their detention.” He added that the ruling is “not only a landmark victory for justice, it’s a big step toward establishing a smarter, more effective counterterrorism policy.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the ruling will “almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed. That consequence would be tolerable if necessary to preserve a time-honored legal principle vital to our constitutional republic. But it is this Court’s blatant abandonment of such a principle that produces the decision today.”

Protecting American lives and moving to try and, when necessary, convict the prisoners at Guantanamo are not necessarily mutually exclusive positions.

Court cases finding prisoners either guilty or innocent of the crimes that have allegedly landed them there will go a long way in proving that the rule of law upheld in the U.S. Constitution is a successful model.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is an international public health consultant and cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for a human rights article.