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Why Closing Gitmo Isn’t Enough

At a call-in “town hall” meeting tonight, the American Civil Liberties Union reiterated its call for the new Obama administration to close the Guantanamo Bay prison on the president’s first day in office. With the help of the filmmaker Robert Greenwald, the ACLU is even distributing a short film to persuade people to join in the campaign.

Closing Guantanamo Bay and even ending the military commissions (also part of the campaign) is all well and good, but that alone doesn’t solve the problem the ACLU and others are trying to address.

Since 2001, Washington has been indefinitely detaining people around the world without charge, and in many cases without access to lawyers or even the right to communicate with family members. Some of those men were swept up by bounty hunters; many were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many have been abused or tortured in custody.

As I wrote in a story for The American Lawyer, more than 600 prisoners are imprisoned indefinitely and without charge in what’s become a black hole at the U.S. air base in Bagram, Afghanistan. Unlike Guantanamo, the Supreme Court has never ruled (or had a chance to rule) that they have any due process rights.

That’s why Washington has been sending suspects there instead of to Gitmo, ever since the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 they have rights at the U.S. base in Cuba. Thousands more suspected terrorists, or their associates, are detained under similar conditions in other U.S.-controlled prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Even right here at home, in South Carolina, Illinois resident Ali Saleh Kahllah Al-Marri has been imprisoned without charge for more than 5 years in a Navy brig, because the president decided he was a dangerous “enemy combatant.” For more than a year, he was held in total isolation, shackled and subjected to painful stress positions and icy temperatures. His lawyers recently filed a petition to the Supreme Court, asking them to review the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision that indefinite detention of a U.S. resident without charge or a hearing is not a problem.

Closing Guantanamo Bay is certainly an important symbolic act. The 250 people still detained there certainly deserve to have the U.S. government decide what it’s going to do with them. (Only about 24 have even been charged.)

Simply transferring them to prisons in the United States won’t solve what is an infinitely larger and more complicated problem.

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