10 years of injustice at Guantanamo Bay

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NPR describes the scene well: “The 20 detainees who stumbled down the gangway had been put on a nonstop flight from Kandahar, Afghanistan, to Cuba. The men came from all over the Middle East and Africa: Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Afghanistan. They all wore the same blackened goggles, earmuffs and orange socks as U.S. soldiers guided them from the plane by their elbows.”

These were the first prisoners to enter Guantanamo Bay prison 10 years ago today.

Almost three years ago to the day, President Obama, making good on one of his big campaign promises, signed an executive order to close the prison. But today, 171 detainees remain. About 80 have been identified for release and 36 for a military commissions trial, leaving 48 with an uncertain future, detained indefinitely, according to NPR.

For seven years, Lakhdar Boumediene was held in Guantanamo under suspicion of plotting to blow up the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. Not only was he not given a trial until 2009, after being taken away from his family and his work in 2002, he was never even presented with the evidence the U.S. government claimed to have on him. When the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that ruled unconstitutional the provision of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 which “stripped the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions from the detainees seeking to challenge their designation as enemy combatants,” Boumediene’s path to freedom was more or less cleared.

In that decision, Boumediene writes in his Times op ed this week, “The Supreme Court recognized a basic truth: the government makes mistakes. And the court said that because ‘the consequence of error may be detention of persons for the duration of hostilities that may last a generation or more, this is a risk too significant to ignore.’”

More than hostilities toward our country is a graver consequence that should concern anyone, especially those with faith in a God of justice: Acts of injustice denies the humanity of those who suffer it, as well as those who inflict it. Everyone should have a right to a fair trial, no matter how serious the accusations are, because, as shown in Boumediene’s case, mistakes are made. These laws exist to protect everyone.

Brig. Gen. Mark Martin, the chief prosecutor for military commissions at Gauntanamo, told NPR that despite criticisms regarding the practice of justice at the prison, "The reformed military commissions aren't that different from Article 3 courts.” (Article 3 courts are the part of the federal criminal court system.) Additionally, he said, "I would not be part of this system if I didn't think that a full and fair trial will be held, and that justice will be served.”

But as Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security Director, Karen Greenberg, also told NPR, "Unless they try everybody, they haven't tackled the hardest problem about Guantanamo and its legality," she said.

Guantanamo has become a symbol of something larger, beyond the injustice surrounding the inability of all detainees to get a trial. Adding the well-documented instances of torture at the facility, it has become a stain on fabric of the U.S. military and justice systems. It would say much more to the world if, rather than institute legal reforms, if Guantanamo’s doors were shuttered for good. Even better: give it back to Cuba.