Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Ruling the Law

The news these days brings uneasy tidings for civil liberties in the United States. A key element of the “war on terror” seems to be the excising of all restraint on how the US government treats its citizens and others as it seeks to dismantle and destroy the forces of terror threatening this nation. BushCheney’s unwillingness to recognize international norms in its military operations and the carefully parsed definitions of torture in defining treatment of prisoners are the international face of a mentality that threatens US citizens and visitors in this country as well. Three recent cases certainly give this civil libertarian pause to wonder about the direction the United States is heading.

Abu Ali is a US citizen accused of plotting to kill George W. Bush. He confessed to this crime under interrogation by Saudi Arabian authorities. His confession was under duress (the Saudis won’t admit to torture but they do say Abu Ali “was slapped around a little”) and came early in his confinement. The Saudis offered to return him for trial but US authorities demurred, concerned that they would not be able to convince a judge to proceed with the charges. Instead, the US government allowed one of its citizens to languish in a Saudi Arabian jail. Only when Mr. Ali’s family pressed for answers about his detention through US courts did the government return him to the US. His return allowed the government to avoid answering questions about its detention policies. However, prosecutors still believe the case is weak and Ali may yet be free. But only after losing two years to detention and torture because his government that has jettisoned Constitutional safeguards that protect its citizens.

Just touching down in this country puts travellers at risk. Canadian citizen Maher Arar was arrested in New York as he was changing planes while returning from a family vacation in Tunisia. (Note: This is not a direct link. The references are to articles by Bob Herbert on February 25 and 28 which can be found using the site index.) US authorities detained Mr. Arar based on information provided by the RCMP, which now describes that information as a “mistake.” From New York, he was flown to Syria where he was tortured and kept in an unlit, rat infested cell the size of a grave. Despite his confessions, the Syrians concluded that Mr. Arar had no links to al-Quaeda. He was finally released after the Canadian government intervened at the request of his family. The Center for Constitutional rights has filed a lawsuit on his behalf but the US government claims that that the suit cannot be adjudicated because it would reveal state secrets.

Attorneys who represent terrorism defendants are also targets for prosecution. Lynne Stewart, the attorney who defended Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman for plotting to blow up bridges and tunnels in Manhattan, was herself convicted of aiding and abetting terrorism and now faces 20 to 30 years in prison. Stewart’s offense: she violated an agreement not to transmit messages from her client to unauthorized individuals when she delivered a statement to a news agency. Her action, however misguided, is not normally a criminal offense; such infractions normally warrant warnings, reprimands or at worst, charges before the bar. Instead prosecutors charged her with fraudulent intent in agreeing to those conditions. Prosecutors also tried the case in a highly prejudicial manner. She was tried with a co-defendant who had terrorist connections but no connection with Stewart. The government also introduced information that had nothing to do with Stewart but did serve to inflame the jury, leading to her conviction.

All three cases demonstrate the US government’s willingness to circumvent the rule of law that has made this country rare in the history of nations. This is hardly the first time in our history. The Alien and Sedition Acts, the Palmer Raids and McCarthyism are all reminders that the rule of law is always at risk even as BushCheney lectures Vladimir Putin about the rule of law. Our war on terror is yet another installment in this sad history.