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Rules of war apply to us, too


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2003

It is hard to view the recent images of American POWs being paraded around in front of television cameras by the Iraqi military. But, as disturbing as that is, it is also hard to listen to the president and defense secretary denounce the pictures as a violation of the Geneva Convention. George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld need to look in the mirror before they start waving the 1949 Convention around crying foul. It is they who relegated this exceptional body of international law to the status of a paper airplane.

We are holding more than 600 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, some of whom even the commander of the detention mission says should be released, yet we refuse to give them access to the individual hearings guaranteed by the Convention. The purpose of hearings is to evaluate the legitimacy of detention for each detainee and determine whether he is POW, war criminal or innocent bystander. But Bush and Rumsfeld won't hear of it. They have no intention of providing any due process to the Guantanamo prisoners, who, the administration claims, can be kept indefinitely. The handful of detainees released this month confirms that not everyone belongs there.

As tragic as the television pictures of captured Americans are, we released a photograph early in the Afghan conflict of Guantanamo prisoners on their knees, shackled and blindfolded. When, at the time, the International Committee of the Red Cross objected on Geneva Convention grounds, the administration ignored the plea as just so much whining.

And as we worry whether our soldiers who have fallen into Iraqi hands will be subject to inhumane conditions or even torture, we should remember that we are holding suspected al-Qaida leaders such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed at secret overseas locales. How exactly we are extracting information -- or allowing another nation's security forces to do our dirty work -- has never been made clear.

Of course our soldiers are not the same as al-Qaida members, but when the rules of war are discarded because we deem an enemy especially evil, we diminish those rules for our own.

Meanwhile on the homefront, the federal courts -- initially the only institution willing to stand up to the administration's abuses of power -- have started to cave. A federal appeals court in Virginia is allowing Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American captured in Afghanistan, to remain in a military brig without access to a lawyer and without charges. Two other appeals courts have turned away challenges by the Guantanamo prisoners to their confinement, saying the American justice system is unavailable to foreigners held off American soil, even when they are under the control of the American military. And while the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the merits of any war-on-terrorism cases, Justice Antonin Scalia has already pooh-poohed any notion of rights being violated. At recent appearance at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Scalia answered a question on the rights of terror suspects by saying: "The Constitution just sets minimums. Most of the rights that you enjoy go way beyond what the Constitution requires."

Way beyond, huh? Music to Attorney General John Ashcroft's ears.

Scalia wouldn't expound, but if free speech is one of those rights, he is in the company of a legislator in Oregon who wants to punish people engaged in wartime demonstrations and civil disobedience as if they were cold-blooded killers. Oregon state Sen. John Minnis has introduced a bill that would charge people with "terrorism" for intentionally causing injury while disrupting traffic or commerce -- the way people protesting in the street might. Anyone convicted would face life in prison.

In Pittsburgh, being against the war means mistreatment by authorities. An antiwar demonstration on March 20 led to over 120 arrests by city police who failed to discriminate between those following police orders and those ignoring them. One person arrested was a legal observer for the local American Civil Liberties Union, a female college student, who witnesses say was thrown face first into the sidewalk by officers. Arrestees unlucky enough to come before District Justice Eugene Zeilmanski were told to post $1,000 bond rather than be released without bond as happened before other judges. Zeilmanski explained the departure by saying: "I'm red, white and blue and God bless America."

Doesn't anyone in officialdom remember the symbol of Justice? She holds a balanced scale and wears a blindfold, the blindfold ensuring that the law is applied in a fair and impartial manner regardless of who is before her. Public officials from the president on down who can't keep this perspective and fairly apply the law -- international and domestic -- aren't American patriots, as they boast. They are manipulators, pretenders and men too unsophisticated to grasp the vital principles that undergird our nation. When this nation of laws bends them to disadvantage those we hate or fear, we are destroying the very essence of what makes this country great.

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