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The Cleveland Plain Dealer (Ohio)

Let's Vote The Detainees Off The Island

Elizabeth Sullivan

Last week's big insider challenge to administration policy came not from the tell-all ex-chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. It came from the nation's new Pen tagon boss.

Defense Secre tary Robert Gates told a House subcommittee that he remains determined to shut the Guantanamo terrorism brig.

He called it a "taint" on other U.S. military activities and a rallying point for allies' misgivings about the quality and credibility of U.S. military justice.

Despite an earlier reported White House rebuff, Gates told lawmakers he'd like to shut the facility and move hard-core al-Qaida suspects to the United States for detention or possible trial.

"No matter how transparent, no matter how open the trials, if they took place at Guantanamo, in the international community they would lack credibility," Gates testified.

The New York Times reported recently that Gates, backed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, already lost this argument when President Bush sided with Vice President Dick Cheney against the idea.

But in his last press briefing before learning that his colon cancer had spread, White House spokesman Tony Snow denied that the matter ever reached the president.

"He deferred to the attorney general on the legal issues," Snow said March 23.

Mercifully, the time of deferring big issues to Alberto Gonzales to mishandle may be drawing to an end.

About 400 detainees are still being held indefinitely at Guantanamo without an opportunity to hear all the evidence against them.

Only a handful of tiny terrorist cogs have been charged under military commission rules that appear heavily stacked against defendants.

So far, none of the so-called high value detainees faces a formal military commission.

One, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, was previously indicted in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

Yet instead of being prosecuted in that case, Ghailani -- who used a recent courtroom appearance at Guantanamo to apologize to the victims -- has been shoved into the netherworld of Guantanamo injustice.


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His only requested witness -- a man already in U.S. detention whom a military judge deemed material to the case -- refused to talk and, under the military rules, will not be compelled to testify regarding the legitimacy of Ghailani's Guantanamo detention.

That doesn't even touch the basic affront to core Western jurisprudence at Guantanamo, where habeas corpus protections against arbitrary imprisonment ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court are being treated like a minor law to be amended.

Already, legal scholars from around the world are petitioning the Supreme Court for expedited review of this travesty of justice.

That the imprisonment has been arbitrary can be seen by the vast numbers being sent home -- about 360 so far, with another 100 cooling their heels just because no other nation is willing to take them.

Even last week's first "conviction" of a Guantanamo inmate -- a guilty plea by former Australian kangaroo meat worker David Hicks that elicited a seven-year sentence -- just enhances the taint.

Hicks offered his plea Monday only after both his outside lawyers were abruptly disqualified over technicalities that call into question the basic fairness of the system.

Prominent New York defense attorney Joshua Dratel was ordered off the case for refusing to sign a pledge to abide by commission rules that haven't been written yet.

Co-counsel Rebecca Snyder was shoved off because she works at the Pentagon in her civilian life and is an officer in the Naval reserves.

Hicks' guilty plea may have reflected his desperation to leave Guantanamo and serve the balance of his sentence in Australia.

Australian media report Hicks' plea deal included his pledge to drop claims of mistreatment while in U.S. custody.

Yet Hicks was just a minnow -- someone who, even according to the U.S. charges against him, never fired a shot at a U.S. adversary and spent only two hours on the front line with the Taliban in Afghanistan before trying to high-tail it to safety. And he converted to Islam and went off for terrorist training only after fighting on what was then the U.S. side, with the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999.

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.

To reach Elizabeth Sullivan:, 216-999-6153

© 2007 The Plain Dealer

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