NEWS

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January 20, 2004

Law professor fights for civil liberties

Over the past several years Geoffrey R. Stone, a Distinguished Service Law Professor at the University, has challenged the Bush administration's prolonged detainment of suspected terrorists, claiming that the suspension of their civil liberties violates their constitutional rights. Now, after months of remaining in legal limbo and solitary confinement, Stone's clients may get their day in court.

This spring, at the behest of the Justice Department, the Supreme Court will hear joint arguments on the case of José Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, both U.S. citizens held without formal charges under suspicion of holding links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime.

During the same period, the Supreme Court will also preside over two other cases involving 16 non-U.S. citizens detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In all three cases, which the Court is expected to decide on by June, the detainees are contesting their indefinite detention in a court usually reserved for civilians.

Stone, who co-authored an amicus brief for both the Hamdi and Guantanamo Bay cases and assisted in the Padilla case, said "the government has detained [Padilla] for two years, held him incommunicado, denied him access to an attorney or any judicial proceeding…is not within the constitutional authority of the U.S. government."

On March 8, 2002, following intelligence reports that Padilla had ties to al Qaeda and was involved in a plan to detonate radioactive "dirty bombs" in the U.S., federal authorities arrested Padilla at O'Hare International Airport. Initially, Padilla was to be tried in a criminal court, but later Bush issued an executive order classifying Padilla as an "enemy combatant" placing him under military custody.

The classification suspended the constitutionally protected legal rights granted to U.S. citizens, such as having the right to seek representation and the right to trial.

Padilla has remained solitary confinement in a naval brig in South Carolina for over 18 months. Last December, however, the Second Circuit Federal Appeals Court, citing the Non-Detention Act of 1971, invalidated Bush's order on the basis that he had not obtained Congressional authorization.

The lower court's rulings on Padilla and the Supreme Court's decision to hear all three cases breaks with the tradition of giving constitutional latitude to the executive office in what Stone calls "national emergency situations."

"Courts are poorly equipped to second-guess the executive in war-like situations, but at some point indefinite detention without either counsel or an opportunity to present facts will be unacceptable to the judiciary," said Dennis Hutchinson, a senior lecturer in the Law School.

A Supreme Court ruling in favor of the detainees could come as a harsh political blow to the Bush administration, which has underscored maintaining national security and fighting terrorism as its top priority.

While the Bush administration has held terrorist suspects under military custody without any formal charges, it argues that if detainees were able to seek representation, then it would disrupt the interrogation process, precluding them from gleaning potentially vital information about al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Others remain skeptical about any intelligence or confessions obtained by the authorities because of the coercive methods that are used on detainees to collect the information.

Detainees are susceptible to depression given their cramped living quarters, ritualistic interrogations, lack of interpersonal contact, and indefinite sentences. According to a Vanity Fair investigative report, within the past six months there have been 40 suicide attempts among detainees. This number may underestimate the actual number of suicide attempts because military personnel have begun to classify them under "manipulative self-injurious behavior."

The detainment of non-citizens at Guantanamo Bay could extend beyond mere legal considerations, therefore, to human rights violations.

Since the 9/11 attacks, only 64 detainees have been released from the detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay and cleared of charges by military officials.

Staunch supporters of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies insist that some civil liberties must necessarily be sacrificed for the sake of national security. The Domestic Security Enhancement Act warrants the government to strip citizenship from individuals involved in groups deemed "terrorist organizations" by the attorney general.

Liberals hotly contest these restrictions to civil liberties, and the two sides continue to clash over the issue.

"It is the current administration's attempt to secretly and single-handedly control the ‘collective well-being' without any degree of accountability that should make us uncomfortable. How does the abandonment of our legal structure make us any safer," said Ryan Hollon, a fourth-year in the College writing his thesis on the Padilla case.