Military to Start Restricted Guantanamo Hearings ASAP

Talkleft spots a Wall St. Journal article reporting that Guantanamo Hearings May Begin Today:

Under the procedure, which went under a dry run yesterday, with military personnel playing the part of detainees, prisoners will appear before a three-man panel of senior officers. That panel will examine the dossiers assembled after hours of interrogations, give the detainees a chance to speak and then determine whether they should be set free. The advocates will be U.S. government employees, who, unlike lawyers, will not be honor-bound to serve the best interests of their client.

Under the current plan, three separate tribunals will hear 72 cases a week so each detainee can get a hearing within four months. Unlike traditional civilian justice, the government will have one big advantage: The burden of proving innocence will rest with the detainees. Detainees won't get lawyers, but “personal representatives,” military officials without any legal background, who will offer advice to prisoners, lay out unclassified portions of their dossiers and help inmates make their case to the tribunal.

It's hard to tell without more direct information, but from the sound of it these status hearings may well suffice to meet our Geneva Convention obligations. Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention states, “Should any doubt arise as to whether persons, having committed a belligerent act and having fallen into the hands of the enemy,” then “such persons shall enjoy the protection of the present Convention until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal. “

So the decision to hold the hearings, however belatedly, is actually a positive step, despite their being so limited and despite their being held in secret. Furthermore, in my opinion, attacks on this procedure as one-sided or unfair or lacking in due process miss the point: none of those 'defects' are actually problems in a Geneva Convention status hearing. They're just par for the course. (As noted below, these same defects become serious issues if (and only if) anyone tries to argue that the fact of the status hearing obviates the need for a full habeas hearing if the tribunal classifies the detainee as an unperson 'enemy combatant'.)

The hearings could, I imagine, produce one of three outcomes in each case: 1) “Detainee is freed,” 2) “Detainee is a POW,” 3) “Other” — a category that will be primarily what the administration calls enemy combatants, but might include a finding that a person is, say, a civilian suspected of criminal activity.

The first two categories are easy. We know how to free people, we purport to know how to treat POWs, and despite various bits of speculation by the right wing, I for one do not believe that a recognized POW will get any traction in our courts, even via habeas, unless he alleges something on the order of torture (and maybe not even then until after the war is over).

The legally interesting category is the third one.

Having had a status hearing, is the non-POW Guantanamo detainee entitled to any further process, and if so what? I suspect that the government will want to argue that this initial status hearing is all the process that is due. But I certain this is not going to suffice to preclude a habeas motion from being heard, and think it likely that if the habeas petition will be decided on its own merits, the court will not treat the status hearing's conclusion as binding (although it may treat it as persuasive).

It is clear even from the limited description reprinted by TalkLeft that these status hearings do not suffice to meet the minimum requirements set by the Supreme Court in the Hamdi case. The complete absence of access to counsel and witnesses alone are fatal flaws. But does the Hamdi decision — which concerned a US citizen held in the US — apply to foreign citizens held in Guantanamo? I think it does. Other than in some immigration matters, we (are supposed to) give foreigners in the US the same due process we give US citizens. Now that the Supreme Court has said that Guantanamo is like US soil for habeas purposes, it ought to follow that the same due process applies there as applies here, citizenship notwithstanding. In particular, the petitioner ought to be allowed a lawyer, and have at least the limited ability to attempt to call witnesses

But resolving that argument could add another layer of delay….

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One Response to Military to Start Restricted Guantanamo Hearings ASAP

  1. Tom Jacobson says:

    Of the three outcomes you envision, it seems likely the gov’t will declare most of the detainees POWs in order to skirt habeas corpus. Then what? Do we continue to hold them until the military is out of Afghanistan? Or Iraq, since it’s also a “central front of the war on terror”?

    This looks like it will be a mess for a long time. And whatever their respective innocence or guilt, these guys will not be happy campers when they get out.

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