Snail's justice

September 13, 2004

OOPS. Not our guy. Sorry. Not really.

Nearly three years after he was captured in Afghanistan and held by the American military at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as an "enemy combatant," one prisoner was told last week that he can go home.

Imagine if the U.S. military hadn't dawdled on confirming his status -- and that of another nearly 600 prisoners -- until the Supreme Court told it to shape up on July 29. Not only would he and perhaps others have been freed sooner, but Americans wouldn't have had to face the world's scorn for practicing such extra-legal incarcerations while preaching the value of freedom and justice.

Since they started Aug. 13, the Combat Status Review Tribunals have reviewed and decided the status of 55 prisoners and are perusing the files of another 200. That's just half the total still held. The Pentagon has reviewed 30 of those 55 tribunal decisions and agreed that 29 of the 30 detainees were enemy combatants, which the administration defines as "an individual who was part of or supporting Taliban or al-Qaida forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners."

These aren't trials, or military commissions. They are merely to determine if a man fits the definition and thus may be held indefinitely with no acknowledgement he is being held, no notification of his family, no charges filed against him in a court of law or any military setup. Court hearings in advance of military-style trials have started in only four cases; problems with that process, too, cast serious doubt on whether justice will ever be served.

"These are very complex issues," Navy Secretary Gordon R. England said last Wednesday while discounting the idea that this man may have been held by mistake. "The information, many times it's ambiguous, it's conflicting. It's not always black and white." Yet that is all the more reason a speedy, fair, monitored review is necessary.

Pentagon officials are rightly concerned that if they make mistakes and release real operatives, they'll see them back on the battlefield -- it's happened already, they say. But officials and the administration tipped too far in the opposite direction, reviving "enemy combatant" status to classify a swath of men and refusing them due process..

Better late than never for the prisoner freed last week, we suppose. For the others, calls home and access to lawyers are still in a far too distant future.

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