Presumed Guilty

June 18, 2007

Presumed Guilty

Summer 2007

Presumed Guilty

Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has become a symbol of all that is wrong with U.S. practices in the war on terror: indefinite detention without due process, harsh prison conditions and trial by kangaroo court.

By Jungwon Kim

In the six years since the United States launched the war on terror, the U.S. government has imprisoned thousands of people all over the world. Yet it is Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that looms in the collective imagination as a symbol of how far America has strayed from its most cherished principles--and how quickly. On that small patch of land leased from Cuba, the U.S. government has abandoned the presumption of innocence, the rule of law and the humane treatment of prisoners. It has hidden the identities of its prisoners, the charges against them and when the remaining 385 might be released behind an Orwellian curtain of secrecy.

Amnesty International's recent report Cruel and Inhuman: Conditions of Isolation for Detainees at Guantánamo Bay describes ongoing human rights violations by the U.S. government, including subjecting prisoners to sensory deprivation, extreme isolation and confinement to mesh cages. An estimated 80 percent of those currently held at Guantánamo are in isolation--a reversal of earlier moves to ease conditions and allow more socializing among detainees--and conditions appear more severe than the "super maximum" U.S. detention practices that international groups have criticized as incompatible with human rights treaties and standards.

Guantánamo inmates' only recourse to pursue justice is through the military commissions created by the Bush administration in 2001. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled these commissions unlawful in the 2006 case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, but Congress and President Bush sidestepped the ruling by passing the Military Commissions Act.

"Civilians picked up far from any battlefield still may be tried in a military system of justice, and defendants can be convicted on evidence obtained through coercion or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment that would be inadmissible in any other U.S. judicial forum," said Jumana Musa, Amnesty International USA's advocacy director for domestic human rights. In March, Musa attended the hearing of Guantánamo inmate and Australian national David Hicks, who pleaded guilty to the charge of "providing material support for terrorism" one day after the military judge prevented one of his military lawyers from serving on his defense team.

"The commissions are not bound by any precedent or case law, making the mounting of an effective defense extremely difficult," said Musa. Amnesty International USA staff and members are mobilizing across the country to hold the U.S. government accountable for its actions, and preserve the rule of law and restore the writ of habeas corpus--the right to petition the courts for relief from unlawful imprisonment--for all prisoners."

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