September 14, 2005
John Roberts and Guantanamo’s hunger strike
Yes, Virginia, there is a connection:
A hunger strike at the U.S. Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has grown to 128 prisoners who are demanding that they be immediately released or granted access to a legal process to defend themselves against blanket allegations that they are terrorists.
The strike, started more than five weeks ago, has forced military authorities to hospitalize 18 of the prisoners and to take extraordinary measures to force-feed them. Some detainees have vowed to die if necessary, while the Pentagon insists it will not let anyone starve to death.
“Everyone is stable,” Sgt. Justin Behrens, a prison spokesman, said of those hospitalized so far. “We’re going to take care of everyone.”
More than a quarter of the 502 detainees have refused food and liquids at various times as the protest has gained momentum since it began Aug. 8. The Pentagon defines a hunger striker as anyone who passes up nine meals over a 72-hour period.
Along with demanding that they be freed or given a trial, some detainees also are complaining of assaults by guards and continue to allege that there has been desecration of Islamic religious items. Behrens denied that detainees were being abused.
“The guards here are professional and are using standard operating procedures,” he said. “Officers are on the cellblocks all the time to make sure this never happens.”
Of course—although the prisoners’ lawyers would have a hard time finding out. Interviewed on NPR’s “Morning Edition” today, Scott Sullivan, a New York lawyer who represents a number of Yemeni hunger-strikers, said that when he visited two weeks ago, he was “shocked at their emaciated appearance.” Today, however, he has no idea how his clients are faring, because “the government will not share details about the prisoners’ conditions.” To find out, he has to visit. Meanwhile the hunger strike is spreading like wildfire—last Friday, only 82 prisoners were refusing food.
This is an issue that the Senate hearings on John Roberts might want to consider, because he played a key role in creating the prisoners’ plight—as Dissident Voice (drawing on a different estimate of the number of prisoners involved) points out:
It was Robert’s ruling in Rumsfeld vs. Hamdan that hastened a massive 200-man hunger strike that is now in its second month and has hospitalized at least 15 inmates. The prisoners are demanding that they be given the opportunity to challenge the terms of their detention in a court of law, a principle that Roberts does not support. He ruled in the Hamdan case that the President was not constrained by international law and that “the Geneva Conventions do not create judicially enforceable rights.”
Roberts ignores the fact that the United States is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions and must comply with its provisions for the humane treatment of prisoners as well as offering prisoners the Convention’s protection “until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal.” Rumsfeld’s handpicked military courts do not meet these requirements, and have been rejected by prominent legal organizations and human rights groups alike.
Let’s be clear – the 500 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are innocent. That is not my contention, but the belief of everyone who still accepts the fundamental principle of American jurisprudence, that men are “innocent until proven guilty.” The inmates have been deprived of due process of law, so we must presume that they are innocent. The language invented at the Defense Department – “terrorist”, “enemy combatant”, “insurgent” – should not cloud our reasoning or undermine our commitment to fair play. The prisoners should be allowed to defend themselves according to internationally accepted standards of justice.
Roberts does not believe that captives in the war on terror have any rights whatsoever. His ruling in Rumsfeld vs. Hamdan confers absolute authority on the President to imprison suspects indefinitely without any legal process in place to challenge their imprisonment. But, if this is true, than why do we need courts or judges at all? Why not simply resolve these issues by executive fiat?
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