Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What a kangaroo court looks like

For travesties of justice, it's a bit hard to beat the Guantanamo Military Commission hearings currently going on in Cuba.

As the New York Times opined on Sunday, the proceedings are so slanted that even a confession from a real bad guy, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, couldn't be taken entirely seriously.

When Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — for all appearances a truly evil and dangerous man — confessed to a long list of heinous crimes, including planning the 9/11 attacks, many Americans reacted with skepticism and even derision. The confession became the butt of editorial cartoons, like one that showed the prisoner confessing to betting on the Cincinnati Reds, and fodder for the late-night comedians.

What stood out the most from the transcript of Mr. Mohammed’s hearing at Guantánamo Bay was how the military detention and court system has been debased for terrorist suspects. The hearing was a combatant status review tribunal — a process that is supposed to determine whether a prisoner is an illegal enemy combatant and thus not entitled in Mr. Bush’s world to rudimentary legal rights. But the tribunals are kangaroo courts, admitting evidence that was coerced or obtained through abuse or outright torture. They are intended to confirm a decision that was already made, and to feed detainees into the military commissions created by Congress last year.

The omissions from the record of Mr. Mohammed’s hearing were chilling. The United States government deleted his claims to have been tortured during years of illegal detention at camps run by the Central Intelligence Agency. Government officials who are opposed to the administration’s lawless policy on prisoners have said in numerous news reports that Mr. Mohammed was indeed tortured, including through waterboarding, which simulates drowning and violates every civilized standard of behavior toward a prisoner, even one as awful as this one. And he is hardly the only prisoner who has made claims of abuse and torture. Some were released after it was proved that they never had any connection at all to terrorism.

Okay, but KSM is clearly guilty. So nobody is too concerned if we cut a few corners where he's concerned, right? The complete disembowelment of "rule of law" contained in that attitude aside, I'll concede the point -- and turn to David Hicks, another defendant processed through the system (he's the guy in the picture).

Hicks started out the day with three lawyers. He ended the day with one. The judge removed one lawyer on a technicality -- that although she had been properly appointed by the chief military defense counsel, she was not herself on active duty. He removed the other one, civilian attorney Joshua Dratel, for an even weirder reason. From the ACLU's blogging on the case:

The judge stated that Hicks's civilian defense counsel, well-known criminal defense attorney Joshua Dratel, had not submitted a letter indicating his agreement to comply with the rules and regulations of the Commissions, and therefore was not qualified to serve as counsel. Under Commission rules, a civilian lawyer must sign an agreement issued by the Secretary of Defense indicating that the lawyer agrees to abide by the Commission's regulations. The problem for the judge was that the Secretary of Defense had not yet created that agreement, and therefore Dratel could not sign it.

Instead, the judge had created his own version of the agreement – thereby, in Dratel's words, "usurping the authority of the Secretary of Defense." Dratel would have signed even that version – so long as the agreement made clear that it applied only to regulations that already existed, and not to those (and there are many) that have not yet been issued. "I cannot sign a document that provides a blank check on my ethical obligations as a lawyer," Dratel explained. In simple terms, Dratel was unwilling to pledge compliance with rules that he had not yet seen.

The judge was unpersuaded. "I find no merit in the claim that this is beyond my authority," he said. "That's sometimes what courts do, they find a way to move forward." Because Dratel refused to sign the agreement as written by the judge, he could not serve as counsel. There was a second empty chair.

Got that? He was removed because he wouldn't agree to rules that had not been written yet.

In case you don't like the source, here's a news article covering much the same ground.

Now the judge did give Hicks the option of keeping both lawyers with him as consultants, with all actual lawyering being done by his one remaining lawyer, Maj. Dan Mori. But Hicks said he didn't see much point to that, so they left. Mori then said he needed more time to prepare the case -- a reasonable request, IMO, seeing as how he had just lost two-thirds of his defense team. The request was denied.

A few hours later, Hicks cut a plea deal with prosecutors that will let him go home and serve whatever sentence he gets in Australia.

Hicks may very well be guilty, although what he's mostly guilty of is being a low-level Taliban combatant. But the slanted proceedings cast doubt on the verdict; generate sympathy for the defendant; give us yet another international black eye; undermine our claims of moral superiority; and give people no reason to trust either our word or our legal process. Sure, we don't blow up civilians in crowded marketplaces. Good for us. We just throw people in jail using a process more familiar to banana republics than democracies built on the rule of law.

As the New York Times summarized in its Sunday editorial:

The Bush administration has so badly subverted American norms of justice in handling these cases that they would not stand up to scrutiny in a real court of law. It is a clear case of justice denied.

And that, Mr. President, is why Gitmo and the commissions process is harming our security, not helping us. Way to go.

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