Thursday, 6 December 2007

Guantanamo and history

The US Supreme Court is considering the legality of the detention facilities at Guantanamo. It’s the third time this has happened, and on the previous occasions the court had found against the government only to have the government simply change the law.

This is fitting of course because the whole set up at Guantanamo is a piece of legal trickery. Habeus Corpus, enshrined in the Bill Of Rights can only be argued to apply on US soil and by using a military base in Cuba that is a colony in all but name this is conveniently circumnavigated.

By this fancy footwork, the US government has been able to detain the prisoners at Guantanamo in a state of limbo; denied the status and rights of either civilian prisoners or prisoners-of-war. Quite rightly this has been condemned by the international human rights community, and is a massive stain on the character of a nation that positions itself on the moral high ground. The lawyers acting for the detainees have summed it up perfectly:

"The Founders of our nation created a Constitution dedicated to the protection of liberty, not one that turns a blind eye to indefinite detention without a meaningful opportunity to be heard."

Apparently reference has been made to a historical precedent. In the 17th Century the Earl of Clarendon attempted a very similar trick by establishing his own detention camp for political prisoners on Jersey (which had its own legal status). He was the enforcer for the Restoration regime of Charles II, and contrary to the popular image this was not a time of laughing cavaliers and lusty serving wenches etc but a period when political supporters of the previous Republic and Commonwealth were ruthlessly suppressed. It was Charles I who originally flawted Habeus Corpus with the arbitrary authority of Star Chamber, and it was his successors who dug up Cromwell’s body some ten years after he died and gave it a ritual ‘execution’.

But the story does have a happy ending – Clarendon was impeached and fled the country rather than face the music. What a lovely thought that the same thing might happen with Bush, Rumsfeld and Rice …

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