Justice locked away at Guantanamo

A lawyer for some of the men detained there issues a scathing indictment of U.S. policy

Review Law


Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power

Joseph Margulies

Simon & Schuster / 336 pages / $25

Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power is about as convincing an indictment of President Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and at least a few dozen civilian and military advisers as can be imagined in an atmosphere of government secrecy.

Lawyer Joseph Margulies, who practices from Chicago and represents some of the men incarcerated within the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, uses his position as an advocate to, well, advocate. But despite any bias he might harbor because of his defense-lawyer status, Margulies has capitalized on his unusual access to top-secret operations to write a book that ought to convince anybody - regardless of political ideology - that Bush has allowed immoral and probably illegal treatment of fellow human beings.

Margulies opens the book, part polemic and part journalism, with a scene from November 2004. He is in a prison cell at Guantanamo with Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib. It is the first time Margulies has met his client, despite Habib's arriving at Guantanamo in May 2002. Before that, Habib had spent six months in a prison near Cairo, delivered there by U.S. authorities hoping that Egyptian interrogators would extract information by whatever means necessary about alleged terrorist activities, according to Margulies' sources.

During the meeting, the prisoner, "by order of the U.S. military," must sit with his back to the door so he cannot see natural light. His feet are shackled together, and the shackles are bolted to the floor. Those physical restraints are nothing compared with the larger hardships Margulies faces in defending Habib. Margulies is finding it difficult to mount an effective defense, given that the U.S. government has never charged Habib with specific wrongdoing or defended the detention in open court.

As Margulies leaves the meeting, Habib grasps his lawyer's arm. "I'm dying here, Joe," he says. " ... They'll never let me go home." At home is Habib's wife and an infant daughter who barely knows her father.

Habib turned out to be wrong. In one of the few uplifting moments in a profoundly depressing book, he is abruptly released. On Jan. 28, 2005, Habib arrives at the Sydney airport aboard a plane chartered by the Australian government. Why the U.S. government granted freedom to Habib when it did remains a mystery to Margulies.

His joy at seeing Habib freed is tempered by his knowledge that at least 500 prisoners still share Habib's former circumstances at Guantanamo, as well as hundreds more placed by the U.S. government at prisons around the globe.

"They, like Mamdouh, are prisoners of the Bush Administration's post-9/11 detention policy," Margulies says. "This book is about that policy."

The Bush administration's premises underlying the incarceration of people such as Habib is summarized like this by Margulies: The men and women seized during the so-called war against terror "may be taken - kidnapped if necessary - from any location in the world, even thousands of miles from any battlefield, without the knowledge or participation of the host government and without any judicial process. They may be shipped to an offshore prison on nothing more than the judgment of a single, anonymous field commander. They may be held for the rest of their lives, based solely on the president's self-asserted authority. At the prison, they can be subjected to any conditions or treatment the military devises. And throughout their imprisonment, they may be held incommunicado and in solitary confinement, without access to courts or counsel, without charges of any kind, unknown to the world, and without the benefit of the Geneva Conventions, an international treaty signed and ratified by the United States and designed to protect people seized during armed conflict."

Margulies joined other lawyers in filing a lawsuit, Rasul v. Bush. On June 28, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Margulies' words, "struck down these lawless detentions, rejecting the administration's core contention that the prison at Guantanamo was beyond the reach of the law."

No doubt some defenders of Bush will argue that human rights violations are a small price to pay for information that might help win the so-called American war against terror. Margulies posits that such an argument would contain at least a speck of credibility if those incarcerated really constituted "the worst of the worst" from the terrorist realm. But, he says, that is untrue.

"Today, no one can credibly maintain that the prisoners in Cuba are the worst of the worst. A steady stream of interrogators, translators and analysts attests to exactly the opposite. More than 250 prisoners have been released with no intimation that they did anything wrong. The chief interrogator at the base says 75 percent of the prisoners are no longer being questioned. Even the camp commander says many of the 500 who remain could be released tomorrow at no risk to the United States."

After reading Margulies' account, it is difficult to feel pride in a U.S. government that stoops to the kind of inhumane behavior practiced by a stereotypical terrorist regime.

Steve Weinberg is a veteran investigative journalist. He reviews books regularly for The Sun.

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