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Afghanistan: Advocates Urge U.S. To Try Or Release Guantanamo Prisoners

By Andrew Tully

For two years, about 650 suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters have been held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The United States says they are foreign combatants who may be legally held without charge until the ongoing war against terrorism is over. Human rights advocates say the detentions are unlawful because the prisoners have no access to lawyers and only a very few have been formally charged. Now, a coalition of activists is pressing Washington to grant the Guantanamo inmates trials and release those for whom there is no evidence of wrongdoing.

Washington, 9 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights activists joined the relatives of three Guantanamo Bay prisoners yesterday in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to demand that the U.S. government either put the detainees on trial or set them free.

The group said that being incarcerated without knowing the status of their cases is having a negative effect on the prisoners' mental health. They cited dozens of suicides among the prisoners, most of whom were captured in Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002.

One activist, English actor Corrin Redgrave, said it was fitting that the news conference was being held in front of the Supreme Court building, whose marble portico bears the words "Equal Justice Under Law." Redgrave said many countries have used the U.S. legal system as a model for their own laws. He expressed hope the U.S. government will soon give the Guantanamo prisoners the legal rights they deserve. "I hope that this day will celebrate the fact that those words [on the court's portico] are powerful, are true for all of us, and are true for these family members of detainees in Guantanamo," he said.

Several human rights groups also had representatives at yesterday's news conference. They included the National Council of Churches, a U.S. interfaith group; the American Civil Liberties Union, a private legal-rights organization; and Amnesty International.

The demands came as British Home Secretary David Blunkett was in Washington for talks with U.S. officials. Blunkett announced yesterday that five British citizens who have been held at Guantanamo are expected to be released and fly home to Britain later today. He said the five men will be questioned by counterterrorism police after they return to London and their cases evaluated by British authorities. The United States is continuing to hold four other British citizens, however.

Seven Russian nationals at Guantanamo were handed over to Moscow last week and have been formally charged with border violation, mercenary activities, and criminal conspiracy.

At the Supreme Court yesterday, Azmat Begg, father of British detainee Moazzam Begg, read from a letter he had written to U.S. President George W. Bush about his son. "He has [been] held captive for more than two years. In all this time, he has never been charged and tried. I do not ask for mercy, I ask for justice. Before mercy comes justice, and my son has been denied justice," he said.

At the news conference, Robert Edgar, executive director of the National Council of Churches, said his group is not urging the United States simply to release the prisoners. He said the council only wants them to be granted trials so their cases can be disposed of through legal processes, which is a basic right for Americans and citizens of other liberal democracies.

"We are not here to make any claims about their guilt or innocence. We are here because the principle of due process under the law also is being held prisoner on Guantanamo. We are determined to protect and defend the fundamental right of due process. Without it, no one can be assured of fair treatment under the law," Edgar said.

Another participant was Terry Waite, a peace negotiator for the Church of England who was kidnapped and held for nearly five years during Lebanon's civil war in the 1980s. He likened the Guantanamo detentions to his own captivity. Waite said he appreciates U.S. motives in targeting terrorists after the attacks of 11 September 2001. But he said to continue denying legal status to the prisoners is bad not only for the detainees, but for democratic rights everywhere.

"We are here today because we believe that there has been a major breach of human rights [at Guantanamo Bay]. Perhaps it was good that it was done with good intention, but the consequences will be disastrous -- disastrous for the United States and disastrous for all our freedom," Waite said.

In an interview with RFE/RL after the news conference, Ted Galen Carpenter said the United States has few options in dealing with the prisoners, who were captured in a conflict unlike any conceived by the Geneva Conventions. Carpenter is the vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy institute in Washington.

Carpenter said the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war do not cover the war against terrorism. He said terrorists have no uniforms and have no hierarchical leadership with which to sign treaties to end wars -- both of which are covered by international law. Therefore, he says, the Bush administration has no rules to follow.

Carpenter compared terrorists to pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries. Pirates acted entirely outside the law, he notes, and were dealt with accordingly. "I'm not sure we want to go that route, but you can make a case that international terrorism -- at least the free-lance variety -- is more akin to that problem than it is to the problem of modern, organized warfare," he said.

But Carpenter says it would be best to begin legal proceedings soon for all the prisoners. "Give them a hearing, even if they do not have the full protection of the U.S. Constitution," he said. "There ought to be some kind of procedure at least to review whether these individuals are, in fact, guilty of engaging in terrorism. Because certainly, as chaotic as the military environment was in Afghanistan, it was certainly possible for people to get caught up in [U.S. sweeps for enemy combatants] who were, in fact, innocent."

Any further delay, Carpenter says, would be to deny the prisoners justice altogether.

Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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