Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has incarcerated 780 individuals in the military prison at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base on the island of Cuba.
There are 40 detainees remaining. Of those, seven have been charged through the military commissions system and two have been convicted, according to information on a database maintained by the New York Times.
The remaining 31 prisoners are being held in what’s classified as law-of-war detention: five detainees have been recommended for transfer if security conditions are met, and 26 are being held in indefinite law-of-war detention.
Americans have wrestled with the question of what to do with unlawful enemy combatants since the armed conflict in Afghanistan began 17 years ago. This status keeps them in a prolonged legal limbo: They don’t have the full rights of either prisoners of war or criminal suspects.
This allows the government to keep then detained without being charged for as long as hostilities go on. It’s unfortunate that we’ve tolerated such an abuse of our system of justice.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to hear an appeal of Moath Hamza Ahmed al-Alwi, who has been held at Guantánamo Bay since being captured in Pakistan 17 years ago. He argued that the war has largely subsided and that the government’s authority to keep him in detention has expired.
“The case centered on the reach of a 2001 law that authorized military force against al-Qaida and its supporters after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,” according to a Bloomberg story published June 10 in the Watertown Daily Times. “The Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the measure authorizes the president to detain enemy combatants as long as the conflict lasts. The Trump administration urged the Supreme Court to reject the appeal, saying the U.S. remains engaged in hostilities against al-Qaida and the Taliban. … Al-Alwi, who is Yemeni, has admitted he trained at a Taliban-affiliated camp and then fought for the Taliban under the command of a high-level al-Qaida leader, according to the government.”
In rejecting the appeal, the Supreme Court has refused to hold the federal government accountable for its actions. This prisoner has been incarcerated for nearly two decades without being charged with a crime.
The argument that we shouldn’t release him because he may return to the field of battle is absurd. In the incredibly long time that he’s been imprisoned, how many other warriors have al-Qaida or the Taliban lured to continue their fight?
There is no question that our government should use every resource at its disposal to protect us from the tyranny of violent extremism on the part of our adversaries. Confronting international terrorism has been a necessary endeavor.
But it has at times brought out the worst in us.
The government has tortured detainees in the quest for information that is more effectively obtained using alternative methods. The government has justified killing Americans without due process. The government has been caught spying on its own citizens without probable cause. And the government has kept many detainees locked up for an indefinite period of time without charging them.
Discarding our professed commitment to rule of law, one of our country’s founding principles, can be a very effective recruiting tool for our enemies — it makes us look like hypocrites. We rightly criticize other nations for their dreadful criminal justice systems. But then we engage in some of the same atrocities that we condemn, dragging us down to their level.
This isn’t who we are as a people, and it’s not who we should become. It’s time to reassert the values upon which our nation was established and insist our government once again seek justice for all.