Free U.S. Captives or Charge Them
Published on Monday, February 20, 2006 by the Toronto Star (Canada)
Free U.S. Captives or Charge Them

Five years is long enough. The American prison camp for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be shut down. And its 500 detainees should be set free or put on trial in a credible court.

That is the view of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour, a former justice of Canada's Supreme Court. Both believe "Gitmo" should be closed in the light of a UN report that describes the camp as an unlawful holding tank where prisoners are denied basic rights and are abused. The European Parliament, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch agree.

So should Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

The sole Canadian at the camp, Omar Khadr, is a telling example of the problem with Washington's approach to terror suspects. Khadr is an Al Qaeda sympathizer who has been held for more than three years. He says he was abused. He has only recently been charged with killing an American soldier in Afghanistan when he was 15, a "child soldier" subject to his parents' authority and indoctrination. The "military commission" process that will try him is so partisan that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge to its constitutionality. Military officers are judges and jurors. Evidence can be withheld from the accused. Coerced evidence is admissible. The right to appeal is very limited.

In Canada, Khadr's detention would be subject to court review. His jail conditions would be unlawful. The trial he faces would be unthinkable.

A five-member United Nations panel found all this wrong with "Gitmo," as the camp at Guantanamo Bay is commonly called. It also found evidence that prisoners are routinely abused.

"Some of the techniques (used by U.S. interrogators), in particular the use of dogs, exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation for several consecutive days and prolonged isolation were perceived as causing severe suffering," the panel's 54-page report concludes. "The simultaneous use of these techniques is even more likely to amount to torture."

The White House rejects the report. It challenges the UN's reading of international law on "unlawful combatants." It says the panel turned a deaf ear to Washington's defence of Gitmo and its treatment of prisoners. And it points out the UN investigators never went to the camp.

That is because U.S. officials refused to let them interview individual detainees privately. The UN was forced to rely on information supplied by U.S. officials, interviews with former detainees, lawyers representing inmates, news accounts and other public sources.

Sensibly, the UN does not challenge Washington's right, even duty, to detain terrorists. But the UN does rightly question the shaky legal justification for arbitrarily holding hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban sympathizers for years on end, long after their capacity to supply information has been exhausted, for abusing them and for denying them fair trials.

At many levels, Gitmo is an affront to human rights and the rule of law. The U.S. and its allies can fight terror without abandoning core values.

© 2006 The Toronto Star