Tuesday, October 19, 2010

War? What War?

It's hard to believe, but one issue that is not being raised during the current election campaigns is that of the war in Afghanistan. It's as if the war and the ever increasing death toll among American soldiers just doesn't exist. Oh, I realize that what is on most Americans' minds is the lousy economy and their own precarious existence, but how is it that one of the major drags on the economy and the federal budget is simply ignored? Are we just bored with it? Or, even worse, do we just assume that the war is part of the natural order of things?

While our national attention has wandered from the war which has been going on for well over nine years, it still proceeds apace, accompanied by violations of international law when it comes to detention of Afghanistan civilians at the new-and-improved site of the bad-old Bagram prison. I was relieved to see that at least some people are still paying attention, and I was pleased that the Los Angeles Times provided space for one of those people, Rachel Reid (an observer for Human Rights Watch) to remind us just what is being done in our name in her opinion piece.

Ms. Reid sat in on one of the hearings at the military detention center and tells the story of Gul Shah Wazir, known as "Mullah Tractor". In that hearing (which lasted less than an hour), the defendant was asked questions by the three uniformed men of the military commission. He had no lawyer, only a "personal representative" who sat silently by. In other words, just another dog-and-pony show like the ones in Guantanamo Bay until the Supreme Court slapped the military around for the utter denial for due process.

This was a Detainee Review Board, a type of hearing taking place in a new detention facility on the edge of Bagram airfield, north of Kabul. Though the site is physically much improved from the old Bagram prison, this is still a long way from a just process. For the hearings to be minimally fair, the detainees should be able to contest the evidence against them and have access to a lawyer. Instead, a detainee faces a three-member U.S. military panel, which tries to determine whether he is an insurgent and whether he would continue to pose a threat if released.

Now, the process might be necessary on the kind of battlefield the US finds itself, but there is no reason why even minimal steps toward making that process fair haven't been made. Ms. Reid offers a couple of rational suggestions:

It's quite possible that there is some highly incriminating intelligence on Wazir. But because it's classified, Wazir probably will never know what keeps him behind bars, nor will he ever be able to challenge the evidence. He's waiting for the panel's decision. If he remains in U.S. detention, this process will be repeated once every six months, until he is released or transferred to Afghan custody.

The Pentagon recently has tried hard to improve its detention policy in Afghanistan. It should take two more achievable steps. The first is to give detainees access to legal counsel, an internationally recognized right. The second is to decrease classification levels.

This process has already begun, driven by the desire of the United States to stop being a jailer in Afghanistan and to hand over detention to the Afghan government. To do this, it recognizes that it will have to start providing evidence that will stand up in Afghan courts and stop relying on intelligence kept behind closed doors.

In other words, the US military and the federal government need to quit hiding behind the "terror" and "state secrets" facade and start complying with our Constitution and international law with respect to basic human rights, among them due process. That will happen only when enough citizens of this country see what this kind of "justice" is costing us in terms of money and lives. And that will happen only if our free press does its job in informing us.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home