Ethical debates intensify as Guantanamo Bay detention center turns 10

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FILE – In this Jan. 11, 2002 file photo, released by the U.S. Department of Defense, detainees wearing orange jump suits sit in a holding area as military police patrol during in-processing at the temporary detention facility Camp X-Ray on Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.


In this Sept. 19, 2006 file photo, reviewed by a U.S. Department of Defense official, a detainee stands at a fence holding Islamic prayer beads in Camp Delta detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.


Enlarge Photo

In this Dec. 6, 2006 file photo, reviewed by a U.S. Department of Defense official, a shackled detainee is transported away from his annual Administrative Review Board hearing with U.S. officials, in Camp Delta detention center at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.


In this Sept. 19, 2006 file photo, reviewed by a U.S. Department of Defense official, military personnel stand inside the brand new Camp 6 maximum security detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.

By John Lantigua

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Updated: 9:16 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012 Posted: 8:58 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012

The first images from the Guantanamo Bay detention center are now 10 years old.

The men in orange jumpsuits, hands manacled, ankles chained, blindfolded, shuffle into outdoor cages.

Given the anger Americans felt after the 9/11 attacks, the average citizen was not much concerned with the prison conditions or the legal niceties.

But in a nation founded on laws, it was just a matter of time before those concerns navigated the distance between the U.S. mainland and eastern tip of Cuba, where the camp is on a U.S. naval base.

With its 10th anniversary Jan. 10, Guantanamo today is not just a lockup for terror suspects. It has become a battleground where issues of constitutional law and human rights are disputed – with Americans on both sides of the argument. Revelations that some detainees were waterboarded during interrogations before arriving at the camp have intensified the dispute.

In 10 years the camp has undergone wholesale physical changes. The cages are gone and the facility now resembles a standard prison. Detainees play soccer and watch flat-screen plasma televisions. Library books are available.

According to prison officials, the most notorious detainee – Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who the U.S. says was a top planner of the Sept. 11 attacks – has read a book by the late President Richard Nixon, Victory Without War.

But human rights issues and legal issues persist. Should the isolated prison camp survive, or should it be closed and its inmates brought to the U.S.? Also, what standards of due process should terror suspects be afforded – civilian trials or military tribunals?

Battle in Washington

The latter debate will intensify this year, as five men accused of direct involvement in the 9/11 attacks are due to face military trials at Guantanamo. All could face the death penalty, including Mohammed.

In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama promised that he would close the camp within a year of taking office. But he hasn’t been able to do so, in part because Congress has denied him the use of federal money to close the camp and bring detainees to the U.S.

“The president has tried to close Guantanamo but has been stymied by congressional opposition that seems to think Guantanamo should exist as an island outside American law and outside our constitutional principles,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, who favors closing the facility.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-­Tequesta, a former military prosecutor, disagreed.

“I strongly believe that trying detainees in military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay is the best way to hold terrorists accountable, keep them out of the United States, and prevent them from rejoining the fight,” he said on his website.

Rep. Allen West, R-Plantation, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq, also said the camp should stay open.

“We are creating gaps by which we are being exploited,” West said in a West Palm Beach speech last year about pressures to close Guantanamo. “Political correctness cannot be part of our national security system.”

Since it opened, 779 terrorism suspects have been held at Guantanamo. Most were released, but as of last month 171 remained.

The Obama administration wants to release more, when it finds countries willing to take them.

But there are dozens of other detainees the administration apparently has no plans to release. According to Amnesty International, 11 men who have been at the camp since the day it opened have never been tried or even formally charged.

The rights of the detainees have been batted back and forth between the Supreme Court and Congress.

Years of legal wrangling

The court originally ruled that President George W. Bush could not deny detainees the right of habeas corpus. But Congress then passed laws that took away from the courts the right to review habeas petitions from Guantanamo and gave the White House the right to identify detainees as “unlawful enemy combatants” and deny them those rights.

The court struck down parts of that legislation, but the Guantanamo cases are now stuck at the appeals court level. The wrangling is taking years.

“We are drifting in the direction of indefinite detention, which violates our Constitution,” said A. Michael Froomkin, a University of Miami law professor. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Scrutiny of commissions

Guantanamo detainees face military tribunals called “commissions,” which many attorneys say do not meet American legal standards. Detainees are tried before a jury of military officers, not civilians. And because of security concerns raised by the government, the accused are often unable to confront their accusers or fully examine the evidence against them, attorneys say.

“It’s a perversion of American justice,” said Bob Jarvis, professor at the Shepard Broad Law Center at Nova Southeastern University.

Rooney disagreed. “Military commissions are fair and provide due process for the accused, but they also protect critical intelligence officials and evidence,” he said.

Some who want to keep the camp open say it would be too dangerous to bring the detainees to the U.S. and put them on trial here.

“Giving terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed civilian trials would have jeopardized our national security,” Rooney said.

But critics say that 400 people have faced terrorism­-related charges in U.S. courts since 9/11 with no significant security incidents.

“I don’t think the security argument is valid,” said attorney Bruce Rogow, a constitutional law expert.

He points to the maximum­-security federal prison in Florence, Colo., which holds notorious Al-Qaeda members, dangerous drug cartel kingpins and gang leaders.

An asset to security?

Critics of Guantanamo say that despite improved conditions, the detention center remains a symbol for mistreatment of prisoners and the denial of human rights. They say that creates a danger to the U.S. as whole that outweighs concerns about where they might be imprisoned here.

“Every day Guantanamo is open is a day it is being used as a recruiting tool by extremists,” said attorney Zachary Katznelson of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It puts us all at risk.”

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