MY VIEW • Obama restores U.S. as 'beacon of liberty'
Seven Eleven. The luckiest numbers in the gambling world. Bitter sweet numbers for Lady Liberty and the prisoners in Guantanamo, including three of my clients who continue to languish in prison.
It was seven years and 11 days from when the first men were delivered to the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba by the Bush Administration until the day President Obama issued an executive order that the prison be shut down.
On his first day in office, our new president began to steer this great nation back on course when he issued an executive order halting the commission 'trials' of the roughly 20 Guantanamo prisoners who have been charged with war crimes. A growing number of military prosecutors, believing the procedures fundamentally unfair, have refused to participate in those trials.
On his third day in office, the new president issued four more executive orders. They demonstrate his immediate and concrete resolve to break from the policies of the previous administration that have strayed from America's core values and shaken America's standing in the world.
In the executive order 'Ensuring Lawful Interrogations,' President Obama ordered compliance with the U.S. Army Field Manual and the Geneva Conventions in all questioning of people taken into custody by the United States in armed conflicts.
He explicitly revoked all of the former president's executive orders that had been issued between Sept. 11, 2001, and Jan. 20, 2009, that are inconsistent with the return to the rule of law in interrogations.
In the two orders that relate directly to Guantanamo, President Obama directed that the prison be closed within one year. But he did not stop there and went on to order that the prisoners be treated in accord with the Geneva Conventions - treaties this nation ratified nearly 60 years ago. During the past two years, most of the prisoners have been moved to what are called camps Five and Six at the prison.
'Camps' is another of the Bush euphemisms. These are standard-issue steel and concrete federal prisons where the prisoners, including men the Bush Administration conceded were not enemy combatants, were locked down in solitary confinement 22 hours per day.
The new Guantanamo orders also called for immediate review of each prisoner's situation. To accomplish this, the new administration had to order consolidation of the facts related to each prisoner into one file. Another of the little known and perverse aspects of the Bush Administration's policies in Guantanamo has been its failure to gather the facts it had on each prisoner in one place so it could rationally determine whether it was holding innocent men, reformed men or hardened fighters.
The last of Thursday's executive orders, and perhaps the most important in the long run, calls for review of the detention of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri.
Al-Marri, a lawful permanent resident of this country, was charged with fraud in 2001. In 2003, the Bush Administration, asserting that he is an al-Qaida agent, swept him out of the criminal justice system and imprisoned him in a Naval brig near Charleston, S.C., without charges or trial.
The former president has argued, as he had with the Guantanamo prisoners before the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his claims, that he has the authority to seize people who are lawfully present in this country and imprison them indefinitely without any process whatsoever. President Obama, who must soon file briefs with the Supreme Court answering al-Marri's challenge to the legality of his imprisonment, has ordered a review of the factual and legal basis for his continued detention.
Whether the new president will change course is not yet known, but the fact that he has ordered review of the Bush position on executive detention at the highest level is encouraging.
In his speech in Chicago on election day Obama referred to the 'beacon' this country has provided for liberty and democracy around the world. Those words carried a particular poignancy for me.
One of the seven Guantanamo prisoners my office and I have been representing (four are now home and seeking to have their names cleared) is an aid worker and hospital administrator from Sudan. While the Bush policies kept the doors of the federal courts closed, I traveled to Sudan as part of my efforts to secure his freedom. During one of my Sudanese national television appearances speaking out for my client, the commentator, a former high official in the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, talked about America's role in the world.
'Mr. Wax,' he said, 'we cannot understand what your country is doing in Guantanamo. America is supposed to be the beacon of liberty in the world. If your government can do what it is doing in Guantanamo, imagine the license it gives to dictators around the world.'
This week our new president moved beyond rhetoric to action, rekindling the beacon of liberty that continues to speak so strongly to people around the world.
Steven Wax and his Oregon Federal Defender office continue to represent seven men who are or were prisoners in Guantanamo. He is the author of 'Kafka Comes To America - Fighting For Justice In The War On Terror.'