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The American Prison Camp

New York Times Editorial

October 16, 2003

The International Committee of the Red Cross recently took the unusual step of publicly criticizing the United States over the confinement of the roughly 660 detainees at the Guantánamo naval base in Cuba. After visiting the base, Red Cross officials said there was a "worrying deterioration" in the mental condition of the detainees, largely because they have no idea how long they will be held or what will happen to them.

Other reports are equally dismaying: there have been 32 suicide attempts by 27 detainees. And while it is true that there have been recent, worrying reports about infiltration — three staff members, a Muslim chaplain and two Arabic interpreters, have been charged with crimes ranging from disobeying orders to espionage — this does not relieve the administration of the obligation to treat the detainees with justice.

Why are the men still without trial, still without rights? The Bush administration has two justifications. One is, in essence, self-defense: in the war on terrorism, in which the security of the United States is in mortal danger, normal rules cannot apply. The other, more narrow, is about legality: the Taliban and Al Qaeda are not combatants in traditional or legal terms, and are therefore not eligible for the protections due to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

Both arguments miss the point. The men held at Guantánamo are prisoners of the United States. While they may not have the same rights as American citizens, they should be treated in the highest tradition of American justice. That means they must be given some forum in which to contest their imprisonment, and there must be reasonable rules and some individualized proof for the detentions to be upheld.

That the Pentagon should be allowed to run this prison camp in total secrecy and in utter disdain of what America stands for should be heavy on the conscience of all Americans, whether libertarian or liberal, Republican or Democrat. For this reason alone, the detainees should be brought to justice or released.

The justifications offered by the administration are equally unpersuasive. The argument that the detainees are not prisoners of war because they are not uniformed members of a regular armed force has no foundation in the Geneva Conventions.

As for the claim of self-defense, it simply cannot be applied indefinitely. We accept that there are extraordinary times — Sept. 11 was one of them — when a government must take extraordinary measures to protect the nation. But with Guantánamo, the administration has gone far beyond the needs of the moment, seeking to ensure in every way possible that the prisoners remain indefinitely beyond the reach of law or scrutiny.

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