Sunday, April 01, 2007

Oh Say Can You See

When a child we would substitute for the words of the United States national anthem with

Oh say, can you see,
Any bedbugs on me,
If you do, pick a few,
And I will fry them for you.

But that was just kids being cute without grasp of the substitution's appropriateness. It wasn't until later years that I sung another lyric with political intent.

There were campus protests opposing the then current war. They essentially shut the school down. Its president suffered embarrassment of having been forced by local self designated patriots to publicly sing the national anthem. The state police were called out and assembled to restore campus order. Their large number were in rank at attention for the morning's US flag raising. As it started to slowly climb and the cops feigned showing proper patriotism, someone in the much larger gathered crowd began singing hard to forget lyrics, and the rest took it up.

Ha ha ha, Ha ha ha,
Ha ha ha ha ha ha,
Ha ha ha, Ha ha ha,
Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Those were the words I cynically recalled while reading the following article about US justice, a word that is not, by the way, among those of their anthem. The only surprising thing was where the article appeared. It is usually necessary to seek publications outside US borders to get a glimpse of what is as it is. This one was in the US Saint Louis Post Dispatch for 'Americans' to skim and forget in favor of TV presentations of what isn't happening and who cares about what it says is. No need now to remember the proper order of their pretentious anthem's official words "proudly we hail", "bombs bursting in air" and "rocket's read glare"

By Guy Taylor

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, CUBA • His ankles shackled and locked to the floor, the heavyset man with a shaved head and a thick black beard sat as a panel of military officers shuffled into the windowless hearing room. Over the next hour, the officers presented a classified summary of accusations against the man as part of a once-a-year review to determine whether he would be released after more than 60 months of incarceration. The man refuted their assertion that he once served as a high-level operator in the Taliban; he claimed instead to be no more than an innocent shopkeeper from outside Kabul.

The hearing, called an Administrative Review Board, happened in small trailer almost entirely without notice last week, the same week Australian David Hicks made worldwide headlines by becoming the first to be convicted in a special war crimes court here. Hicks pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of nine months in an Australian prison, which was announced Friday night.

While the court aims to bring some form of justice for men like Hicks and admitted Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the fate of hundreds of others still lingers.

For men such as the bearded Afghan, the legal proceedings amount to little more than the once-a-year hearing they receive in the windowless white trailer. And with public and political debate raging over whether the Guantanamo prison ought to be closed, some, including the military officials in charge here, say the prison's future hinges on what is to come of these lesser-known prisoners.

Asked in an interview this week if the prison may soon be shut down, Army Brig. Gen. Cameron A. Crawford, deputy commander of the joint task force that runs the prison, said: "I don't know."

"A better question might be, 'What are we going to do with the 380-some detainees we have here?' " he said.

"What is going to be their disposition? That will, in turn, drive how long Guantanamo is open as a detention facility."

Grim outlook

Military officials are conducting almost daily administrative hearings like the one for the Afghan, designed to give each detainee an annual chance to have his status as an "enemy combatant" reviewed by a panel of military officers.

While Pentagon news releases say there have been "approximately 390 releases and transfers" from Guantanamo since the prison was created in 2002, the number of men leaving the prison is now waning significantly.

Out of 328 hearings conducted last year, none resulted in a release,

according to officials at Guantanamo. Fifty-five led to recommendations that detainees be transferred, most to their native countries, and 273 ended with a ruling to keep the detainee at Guantanamo. Officials said 111 prisoners were released last year, but they were the result of earlier hearings.

About eight out of 10 detainees opt not to show up at the hearings, lest their participation lend some legal validity to the process. Most are advised not to attend by pro-bono civilian lawyers, who are seeking to have their cases tried in U.S. federal court.

Human rights and civil liberties groups argue the hearings unjustly stack the deck against detainees because military officials present only a summary of classified evidence of the reason each is being held.

Half of each hearing consists of military officers mulling over the classified portion of the evidence, without the detainee or any outside observer, present.

'Sources are classified'

The Afghan, whose name is being withheld in adherence to Pentagon ground rules for journalists, was the first detainee to show up for an administrative hearing since December. During the past three months, 20 such hearings were held with no detainee present.

The four military officers sat at a table with a large American flag on the wall behind them. The name tags had been removed from their uniforms. They read from a three-ring notebook.

"The detainee stated that when Taliban forces captured Kabul, they detained many people and he took a job in the intelligence ministry of the Taliban and was in charge of patrolling the streets," read one officer.

His wrists cuffed in his lap, the Afghan responded through his translator: "They were forcing young men to serve in their army. Since I didn't want to go to war and fight, I just gave my name to work in an administrative job. I did this to avoid having to go and fight … I wasn't working in the intelligence office. I had to go there to show my face once in a while."

He acknowledged having received pay from the Taliban, to which the military official asked, "Why would the government pay somebody who wasn't working?"

"In Afghanistan, it's normal," the prisoner said. "It's chaos, it wasn't organized. They don't have like a human resources office that follows up."

He also acknowledged carrying a handgun when was arrested, but said that, too was normal.

The Afghan said he had made up some of his other statements to interrogators who questioned him aggressively.

"Sometimes they would treat me real bad," he said. "I would say whatever came out of my mouth. There were so many times I would say, 'Why don't you call me Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden?' I would tell the interrogators, 'Why don't you write down anything you want and I'll sign it.'"

He also denied an allegation read by the military officer that the "detainee's sister is married to a Taliban intelligence officer."

"My sister is not married to a Taliban," he said.

After denying the officers' statement that a source had said the Afghan was a "major" Taliban intelligence operative, he asked: "Why are you hiding information from me … the sources who said these things about me?"

"The sources are classified," said an officer, "for reasons having to do with security."

At the hearing's end, an officer read a list of reasons why the detainee should perhaps be released, including that he claims he had "never heard of al-Qaida until the United States began bombing Afghanistan."

Return to war?

As occurs after every administrative hearing, military officials will now review the Afghan's statements along with the secret evidence against him, then make a recommendation to the Pentagon on whether to release, transfer, or keep him imprisoned.

Critics decry the process.

"You've got hundreds of people here who've never been charged with any crime and will never be charged," said Sabin Willett, a volunteer lawyer from Boston who was at Guantanamo this week. "It's a farce."

Willett represents a group of ethnic Uighurs — men from northwestern China — who were detained in Afghanistan more than five years ago and continue to be held at Guantanamo despite having been determined by military officials to no longer be a threat to the United States.

Gen. Crawford, the deputy prison commander, defended the hearing process, noting that the Defense Department "very recently crossed that magic point where we've actually released more detainees than are actually here." The purpose of the process is "to make sure that we're not holding anybody any longer than we need to," he said.

A recent Pentagon news release says the process is designed with a "rigor" that "helps mitigate the risk that a released/transferred detainee will return to the fight and the Global War on Terror."

Guy Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Washington.

In offer of one more reference to their national anthem, there is something there about the "twighlight's last gleaming" over the "land of the free and the home of the brave". Let us sing with more fitting lyric as we do our best to bring that about.

Ha ha ha, Ha ha ha,
Ha ha ha ha ha ha,
Ha ha ha, Ha ha ha,
Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

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