Republican senators, showing uneasiness with the gulag-like conditions of the Gurantanamo Bay prison, called Wednesday for the rights of foreign terrorism suspects to be legally defined even as the Bush administration said the inmates could be jailed there “in perpetuity.”
The prison, currently holding roughly 520 inmates, opened on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in January 2002 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Many of the detainees have been held for more than three years, and only four have been charged.
At a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Republican Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said Congress should help to define the legal rights of the inmates at the prison, which the panel’s top Democrat called “an international embarrassment.”
Delaware Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden asked Deputy Associate Attorney General J. Michael Wiggins whether the Justice Department had “defined when there is the end of conflict.”
“No, sir,” Wiggins responded.
“If there is no definition as to when the conflict ends, that means forever, forever, forever these folks get held at Guantanamo Bay,” Biden said.
“It’s our position that, legally, they can be held in perpetuity,” Wiggins said.
Earlier, the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said the United States may face terrorism “as long as you and I live.” He asked Brig. Gen. Thomas Hemingway, who oversees military trials of Guantanamo prisoners, if that means America can hold prisoners that long without charges.
“I think that we can hold them as long as the conflict endures,” Hemingway responded.
“Guantanamo Bay is an international embarrassment to our nation, to our ideals, and it remains a festering threat to our security,” Leahy said.
“Our great country, America, was once viewed as a leader in human rights and the rule of law, and justly so. Guantanamo has undermined our leadership, has damaged our credibility, has drained the world’s goodwill for America at an alarming rate,” Leahy added.
Critics have decried the indefinite detention of Guantanamo prisoners, whom the United States has denied rights accorded under the Geneva Conventions to prisoners of war. The prison, was called “the gulag of our times” in a recent Amnesty International report.
Hemingway said the military commissions created by the Pentagon were the appropriate forum for trying Guantanamo prisoners. Human and legal rights groups have said the rules created by the administration are heavily biased toward the prosecution. The trials have been held up amid legal fights.
Navy Rear Adm. James McGarrah called “rigorous and fair” the Pentagon’s annual review of the status of Guantanamo prisoners — a process that can lead to their release. In those proceedings, detainees are prohibited from having lawyers and cannot see all the government’s evidence relating to them.
Lawyers representing Guantanamo prisoners criticized their treatment and the government’s system for trying them.
“The (reviews) are a sham,” said Joseph Margulies, one of the lawyers. “They mock this nation’s commitment to due process, and it is past time for this mockery to end.”
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said: “This country is not systematically abusing prisoners. We have no policy to do so. And it’s wrong to suggest that. And it puts our soldiers at risk who are in this battle because we sent them there.”
Referring to detainees, Sessions added, “Some of them need to be executed.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina joined Specter and others who said Congress needed to get involved to better define the process at Guantanamo.
“I think it would be tremendously helpful if the Congress and the administration came together with some general statutory language to help define what’s going on at Guantanamo Bay, to better define what an enemy combatant is, to make sure that due process is affordable,” Graham said.
Specter noted that legislation he introduced in 2002 on legal rights of detainees had gone nowhere.
“It may be that it’s too hot to handle for Congress, may be that it’s too complex to handle for Congress, or it may be that Congress wants to sit back, as we customarily do, awaiting some action with the court no matter how long it takes,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled a year ago that Guantanamo prisoners had the right to seek their release in federal court. But decisions in the lower court have been contradictory, creating what Specter called a “crazy quilt” of rulings.