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Volume 72, Issue 137, Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Opinion

U.S. is far from being a moral leader

Florian Martin
Opinion Columnist

If someone commits a crime in the United States, he or she is entitled to a lawyer and a fair trial to determine the weight of their felony. Few in this country would question the right to a trial, no matter how bad the crime, because Americans believe in human rights.

However, the Supreme Court this month rejected hearing an appeal by two groups of Guantanamo Bay inmates who challenged their imprisonment as "unlawful enemy combatants" -- a term used to distinguish detainees from prisoners of war, who then do not have to be treated in accordance with the laws of the Geneva Convention.

The Justices ruled according to a law passed by Congress in 2005 that denies unlawful combatants habeas corpus rights. 

In 1950, the Supreme Court set a precedent in Johnson v. Eisentrager, which ruled that enemies who have not entered the United States have no right to access U.S. courts. In other words, if the Guantanamo Bay prison were on continental American soil, detainees would at least have a chance to legally challenge their treatment.

Of course, this is exactly what the Bush administration wants to avoid. The goal is to ensure that terrorist detainees won't be freed easily, and the Bush administration is looking for ways to deny their enemies all rights granted to American citizens under the Constitution.

The administration gets away with classifying members of terrorist organizations as unlawful combatants because they usually don't meet the criteria to qualify as POWs: They have to be commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; they must have a fixed, distinctive sign that makes them recognizable; they have to carry arms openly; and they have to conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

However, the major reason that the United States does not classify terrorists as POWs is most likely because POWs have to be released after active hostilities and, though an end to the war on terror seems far away, the administration does not want to take that risk.

While most would agree that everything should be done to hinder dangerous terrorists, it is also dangerous to deny human beings the right to defend themselves in a court of law. It is not clear if everyone detained by American soldiers was actually involved in terrorist activities -- police officers make mistakes and arrest the wrong person. 

But, in America, falsely arrested persons at least have the option to prove their innocence in court. Unlawful combatants who are innocent have only a small chance of proving that they are not guilty and might have to wait for years to even get a trial. 

MSNBC reported that of the 775 detainees who came to Guantanamo before 2006, only 70 will face military trials.

It is unacceptable that this administration overrides the human rights of anyone, even if they are considered a severe threat to others. After all, the United States claims to be a role model for other countries and justifies its wars with the promise of bringing democracy and peace to the world.

The reality, however, is that the United States fills a big chapter in the 2007 Human Rights Watch report, which mentions, among other things, the high incarceration rate in this country, torture, the death penalty and, in particular, the Guantanamo Bay prison, which is criticized by state leaders and human rights groups all over the world.

America has to stop demanding special treatment, such as the refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol, the rejection of the international criminal court and the outsourcing of prisons. It still has a long way to go before becoming a moral and righteous leader. 

The closure of Guantanamo Bay is an essential first step toward that goal.

Martin, a communication senior, 
can be reached via dccampus@mail.uh.edu

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