ACLU Disappointed By Obama Gitmo Reversal

Host Michel Martin continues her conversation on President Obama's move to resume military trials of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo. Obama also approved continuing the indefinite detention of detainees without trial. The move has drawn mixed reaction, with some rights groups voicing disappointment. Martin speaks with the director of the National Security Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, Hina Shamsi.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This has been such a contentious and important issue that we felt another perspective was in order. So we've also called the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, which has been advocating for terrorism suspects to be charged and brought to trial. They've also acted as defense council for terrorism suspects who've been detained at Guantanamo.

We're joined in our New York studio by Hina Shamsi. She's the director of the National Security Project at the ACLU. Welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. HINA SHAMSI (Director, National Security Project, ACLU): Thanks, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: Well, you just heard Congressman Allen West's perspective. His argument is that many of the individuals there do not deserve constitutional protections. They do not wear the uniform of any nation state, they are not signatories to the Geneva Convention and that this is the appropriate way to handle these particular people. What is your response to that?

Ms. SHAMSI: Well, this is a position that has been advocated by the Bush administration and is onwards going into the Obama administration. And the problem is that the theory that underlies what Guantanamo has become is unprecedented in its breadth. It's a theory of indefinite detention without charge or trial for people who should not be detained under the laws of war because they weren't engaged in hostilities against the United States and were picked up far from any battlefield.

Take, for example, our client, Mohammed Dusahi(ph), who has been illegally detained at Guantanamo for more than nine years and whose case really embodies some of the most - the worst abuses of Guantanamo. He was picked up far from any battlefield, not engaged in hostilities against the United States. He's a Mauritanian national who was detained by the U.S. and arrested in Mauritania. He was rendered by the U.S. to Jordan where he was interrogated and tortured and abused for eight months. He was then taken to Bagram, Afghanistan and finally to Guantanamo, where he's been held since 2002 and where he was subjected to further torture and abuse.

Now, in March 2010, a federal judge ruled in Mr. Dusahi's habeas case that the government did not have any basis for its contention that he was part of Al-Qaeda and ruled that he could not be detained indefinitely. The government continues to oppose his release and has filed an appeal in the district court, an appeal in the court of appeals, and we're back now in the district court, continuing to challenge the detention.

But the example here and what this shows is that people are at Guantanamo who should not be there. And to the extent that there is any evidence of wrongdoing against people at Guantanamo, they should be charged and prosecuted in our federal courts, which have a proven track record of prosecuting terrorism suspects.

MARTIN: What's the - I understand your concern about indefinite detention, but what about the whole question of military tribunals? Why shouldn't military tribunals be used?

Ms. SHAMSI: You know, Michel, the saying you can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig might have been invented for the military commissions. Now, the ACLU has been present and monitoring the commissions right from their beginning. I've observed a number of the commission hearings over the years. And the reality is that they are made up system of second-tier justice which do not have the evidentiary and procedural safeguards that would provide outcomes that Americans and the world can trust.

MARTIN: But militaries, people who wear the uniform of the United States, are subjected to a military system of justice which is distinct from the civilian system of justice. And there are those who would argue that if it's good enough for American citizens serving in the military, why isn't it good enough for these individuals?

Ms. SHAMSI: The important thing here is that the military commissions are entirely different from the courts-martial to which U.S. military service members are entitled. The commission rules are looser, less fair than the court-martial rules are, and they do not comply with established criminal and international law. So let me give you a couple of...

MARTIN: No, I'm sorry, Hina, we don't have time for a couple of examples. If I could just ask you in the minute we have left, and I do recognize this is a complex topic and we'll talk about it again, what should happen going forward since members of Congress have made clear that they will not tolerate nor will they fund moving these prisoners to the United States so that federal trials can go forward? What should happen now?

Ms. SHAMSI: What should happen now is that the administration should follow through on what it said a couple of days ago, that it opposes the restrictions imposed by Congress and will continue to seek their repeal, because Congress has wrongly tied the administration's hand, and what should happen is that the administration should transfer people against whom credible evidence exists to charge and prosecution in our federal courts and to move forward in a way that provides fair and reliable outcomes that Americans deserve and that the world wants to see.

MARTIN: Hina Shamsi is the director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Hina, as I said, this is a complex and important topic and we'll speak again. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SHAMSI: Thank you.

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