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A whole different ballgame

June 9, 2009

During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama committed himself to closing Guantánamo and ending torture by US personnel. Today,however, Obama’s efforts to close Guantánamo have been effectively sabotaged by the US Senate, and the President himself has announced that he may reconstitute military commissions to try the Guantánamo detainees.

On 19 May, the US Senate voted 90 – 6 against  closing Guantanamo. The Obama administration put its congressional Democratic allies in a difficult spot by asking the Senate to pay for the closure of  Guantánamo without being able to present a plan for what to do with its detainees. A clear plan for the detainees would probably have helped Obama’s chances in the Senate, maybe to the point of securing the closure of Guantánamo, but it might not have helped the detainees.

Guantanamo military commissions have a notoriously poor record of dispensing justice and lack legitimacy even among many military lawyers. Still, according to the BBC, President Obama recently stated that some Guantanamo detainees “would need to face a military commission”. This is, in lack of better words, clearly a bad idea. By trying terrorist suspects in a sort of parallel “justice” system, the Obama administration will not only rob the suspects of the right to a fair trial, but also effectively robs the American people of the very same right. If the Guantánamo detainees really are guilty of terrorism or anything remotely connected to terrorism, it is in the interest of the American people that these people are tried and convicted by a fool-proof justice system, impeccable by both national and international standards. If, on the other hand, they are innocent, it is in everyone’s interest that they are acquitted by a credible and trustworthy system.

“A kid who is still learning how to throw”

In an op ed in USA Today, Human Rights First CEO Elisa Massimino explains  in baseball terms just how ridiculous an idea it is to try terrorist suspects by military commissions. If you were the New York Yankees manager and had to make a pitching change in the 9th inning of a World Series game, who would you chose, Massimino asks.  Would you turn to the greatest relief pitcher in the game? Or would you choose a kid who is still learning how to throw and hope for some beginner’s luck?

According to Massimino, this is the choice facing president Obama when it comes to trying the Guantánamo detainees. He can either move the prisoners to American federal courts, where more than 100 international terrorism cases have been tried successfully over the past 15 years, or he can go for military commissions, a rather new system that already has a poor record of dispensing justice and  lacks legitimacy even among many military lawyers.

Terrorists are undeniably among the worst and most dangerous criminals any country will ever have to deal with. Exactly because of this, it is hard to understand why Obama is so reluctant when it comes to choosing the right tools for the job. This is not just about giving the detainees fair trials, but about the importance of arriving at fair sentences and verdicts in the right way and through due procedure. The American people – not to mention the rest of the world – needs to know that when a man captured by US forces is found guilty of terrorism, it is because he actually IS guilty, not because the US government has decided to push him through some ramshackle military “justice” system.

Now, it is time for you to step up to the plate: Tell president Obama that trying terrorist suspects is to important a job to be trusted to military commissions!

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