detainees

Appeals Court Rules Against Bagram Detainees

Today, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against three detainees held by the U.S. on a military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, holding that the federal courts do not have jurisdiction to review their habeas petitions. People For the American Way Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of the detainees’ position that the federal courts do have such jurisdiction.

 In apparent concern about opening the door to habeas cases from detainees held on U.S. military bases all over the world, the three-judge panel distinguished the United States’ control and sovereignty over the Bagram military base from the de facto sovereignty over Guantanamo Bay - a determinative factor in the Supreme Court’s decision in Rasul v. Bush (2004) which held that Guantanamo detainees could seek habeas relief in U.S. courts. The panel pointed out that the U.S. has exercised its leasehold interest in Guantanamo Bay for over 100 years, while its leasehold interest in Bagram is only a few years old.

More interestingly, the court also accepted the government’s “practical obstacles” arguments on appeal that allowing these cases to proceed in our federal courts would overly burden a military that is engaged in active hostilities in Afghanistan. PFAW Foundation wrote about this very issue, urging the court to take notice of the orderly and unobtrusive manner in which the Guantanamo habeas cases have been disposed since the Supreme Court’s decision in Boumediene in 2008. Those cases are particularly instructive given that 30 of the 38 detainees whose cases were brought before the D.C. district courts by the time of filing were found to have insufficient evidence to support their detentions, belying the notion that those detained as enemy combatants are the worst of the worst. In fact, many are not and worse still, some may even be innocent.

PFAW

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Uighur Detainees' case

Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided to hear the case of 13 Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo Bay who are no longer classified as enemy combatants and have been determined to be no threat to the national security of the United States. These detainees - who were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan and have been held by the U.S. since 2001 - were cleared for release by the Pentagon in 2003, but six years later, they have yet to be set free.

After the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene last year that Guantanamo detainees have the right to bring habeas corpus claims in federal court to challenge the legality of their detentions, a federal judge in DC ordered that the Uighur detainees be immediately released into the United States since they cannot return to their own country. As members of a Turkic Muslim minority from the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, their release back into their own country would likely result in torture and execution.

In February 2009, a 3-judge panel of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that order, finding that the federal courts lack the authority to order their release into the U.S. Describing it as an immigration decision, the panel concluded that only the executive branch has such authority and even suggested that the detainees apply for entry into the United States through the Department of Homeland Security pursuant to our immigration laws. In petitioning the Supreme Court for certiorari review, the Uighur detainees argued that stripping the power from the federal courts to order their release into the United States rendered the habeas right recognized by Boumediene meaningless. And indeed, they continue to be held behind chained fences guarded by military men.

Disappointingly, Obama's Solicitor General Elena Kagan urged the Supreme Court not to hear the case, arguing that they have no right to enter the United States. Kagan wrote that "they are free to leave Guantanamo Bay to go to any country that is willing to accept them," but acknowledged that the detainees "understandably do not wish to [return to their home country]." Kagan's brief even attempted to portray the conditions of the Uighurs' imprisonment as not so bad.

In contrast to individuals currently detained as enemies under the laws of war, petitioners are being housed under relatively unrestrictive conditions, given the status of Guantanamo Bay as a United States military base…[They are] in special communal housing with access to all areas of their camp, including an outdoor recreation space and picnic area. . . [They] sleep in an air-conditioned bunk house and have the use of an activity room equipped with various recreational items, including a television with VCR and DVD players, a stereo system, and sports equipment.

Sounds just as good as freedom, doesn't it?

But what if there is no country willing to accept them? That is the case for at least one of the Uighur detainees who has serious mental treatment needs. In that scenario and under these set of circumstances - where they have been found to be no threat to the United States - shouldn't the U.S. take it as a moral imperative to immediately release these people even if they must be released into our borders? Particularly since the media coverage of their wrongful detentions at Guantanamo Bay by the United States is what highlighted the bull's eyes on their backs for the Chinese executioners in the first place?

Let's not be distracted by side arguments by the DC Circuit or our new SG. First, this is not an immigration matter subject to the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security or Congress. These people had no intention or desire to migrate to the United States. They were involuntarily and wrongfully imprisoned by the United States for over eight years. Second, they are not free in any way and are in every sense of the word imprisoned. If relocation to another country is not available, the United States has a moral duty to immediately release these people into the U.S. subject to any parole conditions that may be appropriate. And if the judiciary is the only branch of our government that has the moral compass to do what is right, they should be vested with the power to do so. That is the root of habeas corpus relief which was designed to remedy unlawful government detention. That is why we have our constitutional system of checks and balances.

PFAW

Bagram Detainees Obtain Right to Challenge Detention

The Washington Post reported on Sunday, that the Obama administration this week will put in place a new review system to allow detainees held by the U.S. at a military base in Bagram, Afghanistan the ability to challenge their detentions.  While this is a small step in the right direction, the bigger issue is the administration’s decision to continue arguing against habeas corpus rights in the federal case brought by some of those same Bagram detainees now pending before the DC Court of Appeals. 

After the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 recognizing by a vote of 5-4 the habeas rights of detainees held by the U.S. at the military base in Guantanmo Bay, Cuba, and since Obama has declared that the Guantanamo detention center will be closed by the end of the year, all eyes have turned toward Bagram where hundreds of detainees are being held there without review. While both sides continue to argue the merits of whether the constitutional right of habeas corpus should apply to detainees held overseas by the U.S. in a zone of conflict, at least the administration now concedes what many of us have been arguing for years:  it is a basic human right that an individual cannot be deprived of their liberty without due process.  

Let’s hope that the new process afforded to Bagram detainees in the end will be a meaningful one. 

PFAW

Indefinite Detention: Wrong Under Bush, Wrong Under Obama

For some people in Guantanamo Bay who are found not guilty in a court of law for whatever they are eventually put on trial for, the Obama Administration is floating the idea of keeping them in "indefinite detention" anyway. According to the Washington Post:

Guantanamo Bay detainees who are acquitted by civil or military courts may still be imprisoned indefinitely if the government determines that they pose a national security threat, the Defense Department's chief lawyer said yesterday. "The question of what happens if there's an acquittal is an interesting question -- we talk about that often within the administration," Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson said at a Senate hearing. "If, for some reason, he's not convicted for a lengthy prison sentence, then, as a matter of legal authority, I think it's our view that we would have the ability to detain that person," he said.

Reading this sends a chill down my spine. We are a country governed by law, and we cherish our liberty. The United States Constitution establishes a number of safeguards to limit the government's ability to use its awesome power to simply lock people away. That's why we have trials. That's why we have juries. That's why we prevent the police from beating confessions out of people. That's why we give defendants the right to cross-examine those testifying against them. And when the government loses at trial and a person is found not guilty, our liberty is further protected by the Constitution's prohibition of double jeopardy.

Our nation's founders knew that the system wouldn't be perfect, but they recognized that protecting the rights of all people - even bad people - is what liberty is all about.

An LA Times editorial put it simply two years ago, when President Bush proposed the same idea as the one currently being discussed: "[A]n acquittal must mean more than a return trip to a prison cell."

Just because it would be Barack Obama and not George Bush holding the prison door key does not make this any less of a threat to America's constitutional principles.

PFAW

Don’t Believe the Right’s Propaganda on the Supreme Court

With everyone talking about the retirement of Justice David Souter, the Radical Right’s propaganda machine is set to max.

Right Wing Watch is reporting on the Right’s reaction.  One of the more laughable claims comes from Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network:

The current Supreme Court is a liberal, judicial activist court.  Obama could make it even more of a far-left judicial activist court, for a long time to come …

Calling the current Court liberal is like calling Mitt Romney consistent – you can’t say it with a straight face.  In fact, no less an authority than Justice John Paul Stevens has pointed out that “every judge who’s been appointed to the court since Lewis Powell has been more conservative than his or her predecessor,” with the possible exception of Justice Ginsburg.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s review some of the highlights of the current “liberal” Supreme Court.

In order to achieve their desired ideological results, the Far Right justices have recklessly toppled precedents, or even ignored them while pretending not to, with alarming frequency.  For example, the restrictive federal abortion ban upheld by the Roberts Court was essentially identical to one the Court had struck down before Roberts and Alito joined the bench.  Unfortunately, extreme Right Wing ideology trumped the rule of law.

Voting rights have also come under attack.  The Roberts Court upheld the constitutionality of the most restrictive voter ID law in the country, an Indiana law requiring people to present a currently valid, government-issued photo ID in order to vote.  This imposes a substantial burden on the elderly who don’t drive, college students, and the poor who don’t own cars.  Indiana was unable to identify a single case of in-person voter fraud occurring in its history.  That didn’t stop the Roberts Court from upholding a restriction that kept many Americans from being able to go to the polls on Election Day and cast a vote.

Even our very access to the courts has come under attack from the “liberal” Supreme Court.

Lilly Ledbetter was a victim of sex discrimination effectively barred from the courthouse.  Late in her career, she learned that she had, over the years, been subjected to salary discrimination on the basis of her sex, and she sued.  A jury found that she had been illegally discriminated against.  Yet a 5-4 Right Wing majority held that she should have sued within 180 days of the initial discriminatory conduct—even though she didn’t learn that she was being discriminated against for more than a decade.

The Court also closed the courthouse door in Riegel v. Medtronic, holding that patients injured by a defective medical device cannot sue for damages for violations of state common law if it was approved for marketing by the Food and Drug Administration and made to the agency’s specifications.  To reach this result, the Court had to interpret a federal law in a manner directly contrary to how its Senate sponsor said it was intended.

Keith Bowles was yet another victim denied his day in court.  After Bowles was denied relief in federal district court, the judge informed him that he had 17 days to file an appeal.  Unbeknownst to him, the rules really gave him only 14 days.  So when Bowles, relying on the federal judge, filed on day 16, a narrow 5-4 Supreme Court majority said that he had filed too late.  In so doing, the Court majority overruled clear and principled precedent that protected people in his situation.  In dissent, Justice Souter correctly wrote that “it is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way, and there is not even a technical justification for this bait and switch.”

The danger from right-wing justices was clear in Boumediene v. Bush, a case related to the then-President’s claim of virtually unlimited executive powers to conduct the war on terror.  The case involved the constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which eliminated federal court jurisdiction over habeas corpus claims by certain foreign detainees.  The Court rebuked President Bush’s vision of the presidency as an office of limitless power and declared that the president of a free nation cannot simply lock people up and throw away the key like some third-world dictator.  Chillingly, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas dissenting, the case was decided by a single vote, 5-4.  One more hard-right justice on the Court, and the decision would likely have gone the other way.

That’s why it’s crucial to have justices who are committed to our core constitutional values of justice and equality under the law.

It is of the utmost importance that Justice Souter be replaced by a powerful advocate for our Constitution—a justice in the mold of great jurists like Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan.  Our nation cannot afford anything less.

PFAW

Torturing the Rule of Law

Newsweek is reporting:

Over objections from the U.S. intelligence community, the White House is moving to declassify—and publicly release—three internal memos that will lay out, for the first time, details of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use against "high value" Qaeda detainees. The memos, written by Justice Department lawyers in May 2005, provide the legal rationale for waterboarding, head slapping and other rough tactics used by the CIA. One senior Obama official, who like others interviewed for this story requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said the memos were "ugly" and could embarrass the CIA. Other officials predicted they would fuel demands for a "truth commission" on torture.

Torture and the other illegal activities approved at the very highest levels of the Bush Administration must be exposed to the public for a simple reason: sweeping officially-sanctioned lawbreaking under the rug is dangerously corrosive to the rule of law.  After all, if one president can get away with illegal behavior without any consequences, what’s to prevent another president from doing the same?

America will have more presidents, good and bad, and letting the malefactors of the Bush Administration off the hook can only encourage future criminal abuses of authority.

We must have full accountability for what happened during the Bush era.
 

PFAW

Putting the Justice back in the DOJ

In Washington, we're hearing rumblings that the Right may be looking to start a fight over Attorney General nominee Eric Holder, whose confirmation hearing will be in early January. It's tough to imagine the kind of audacity it would take to challenge Holder's nomination after Attorneys General Ashcroft and Gonzales.

After eight years of being dominated by politicization, cronyism and extremism, the Department of Justice is in desperate need of a good housecleaning. The Department, like the Attorney General, is supposed to defend the rule of law and Americans' constitutional rights. But under the Bush administration, the DOJ has been used as a weapon against constitutional values, used to fight the administration's ideological and political battles.

In the wake of 9/11, John Ashcroft's Justice Department led the Bush administration's relentless assault on civil liberties. The DOJ was on the forefront of the draconian expansion of surveillance and police powers, and contributed heavily to post-9/11 era of extreme government secrecy. Career lawyers at the DOJ were subtly -- and not so subtly -- pushed out in favor of attorneys more politically and ideologically aligned with the administration. The Civil Rights Division was completely politicized and instead of using its resources to protect voters' rights (by enforcing the Voting Rights Act among other things), the DOJ waged an attack on voting rights by supporting disenfranchising policies like Georgia's restrictive voter ID law. The Department also exploited the 'widespread voter fraud' myth for politically motivated witch hunts -- part of a larger trend of selectively targeting political and ideological opponents for investigation and prosecution.

And how can we forget the Gonzales era at the DOJ! The Attorney General is supposed to be the people's lawyer, but Gonzales was more the president's bag man. The problems that existed under Ashcroft continued or got worse. As more and more news came out about the NSA's illegal warrantless spying on Americans, the torture of U.S. detainees, legally questionable military tribunals and other subversions of the rule of law, we found out that the DOJ had expressly signed off on these administration policies and in some cases even supplied the legal and intellectual underpinning out of the Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). And when a scandal broke over the firing of U.S. attorneys, it became clear exactly how politically motivated hiring and firing practices had been at the DOJ, which evidently was staffed with a disproportionate number of graduates of Pat Robertson's law school (including one of the people tasked with the hiring/firing)!

Attorney General Mukasey has been arguably better than his two predecessors, but following the records of Ashcroft and Gonzales, that's not very hard. Eric Holder is a stellar choice: smart, capable and able to lead the DOJ in a new direction. But he will have his work cut out for him and he'll need help from people like you and me. First, we need to make sure he's confirmed, and that could mean a campaign to defeat whatever attacks right-wing senators throw at him. Then, because of the politically skewed hiring practices, he's going to need the support of the people to make dramatic changes at one of the government's most important agencies.

For eight years, the Department of Justice -- a government agency with a rich history of enforcing civil rights and the rule of law -- has served the worst ideological and partisan impulses of the Bush administration. The era of overzealous ideologues and partisans like Ashcroft and Gonzales is coming to an end.

Thank goodness.

But now it's time to dig in our heels and do our part to put the justice back in the Department of Justice. I hope you don't mind if I call on you for help in the coming months.

PFAW

The Choice Is Clear

If you haven't already gotten a chance, be sure to read Joan Biskupic's article on the Supreme Court in today's USA Today, a good primer on the choice that voters face on Election Day.

The appointment of life-tenured judges can be an administration's most consequential legacy, as Obama and McCain observed in last week's debate. Five of the nine Supreme Court justices are age 70 or older, so a new president might have to make multiple appointments.

Because the court is tightly split over issues such as abortion rights, race-based policies and the handling of Guantanamo Bay detainees, even a change of one justice could alter the law across the nation for decades to come.

The article does contain one line of very generous understatement.

[Palin] has invoked God on public occasions and suggested she does not believe in a high wall to separate church and state.

I think that's a pretty safe inference.

The website also offers a fun little SCOTUS quiz.  (I don't mean to brag, but I aced it.)

PFAW

Unpleasant Business and the First Amendment

Glen Greenwald has a thoughtful and interesting reaction to the conviction of a man who might generously be called a “smut purveyor.”  After being found guilty of distributing pornography, the defendent, Paul Little, was sentenced to 3 years and 10 months in federal prison.  It probably doesn’t hurt to point out that the line between obscenity and art isn’t always easy to find (paging Robert Mapplethorpe!) but Greenwald takes a very different tact.  Why is it illegal to depict fake torture on film but legal to perpetrate real torture in Abu Ghraib?

So, to recap, in the Land of the Free: if you're an adult who produces a film using other consenting adults, for the entertainment of still other consenting adults, which merely depicts fictional acts of humiliation and degradation, the DOJ will prosecute you and send you to prison for years. The claim that no real pain was inflicted will be rejected; mere humiliation is enough to make you a criminal. But if government officials actually subject helpless detainees in their custody to extreme mental abuse, degradation, humiliation and even mock executions long considered "torture" in the entire civilized world, the DOJ will argue that they have acted with perfect legality and, just to be sure, Congress will hand them retroactive immunity for their conduct. That's how we prioritize criminality and arrange our value system.

Of course, consistency has never been one of the Bush administration’s strong suits.  And neither has adherence to the Constitution.

PFAW

Supreme Court Hears Detainee Case

The Supreme Court today heard oral argument in Boumediene v. Bush, an important separation of powers case in which detainees at Guantanamo are challenging the constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act, which prohibits them from challenging the legality of their detention through habeas corpus review in federal courts. The detainees contend that the preclusion of habeas review violates the Suspension Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus except in cases of "rebellion or invasion." PFAWF has filed an amicus curiae brief in the case in support of the detainees' constitutional claims.

PFAW