Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 12, 2006

Habeas Corpus and Justice for the Guantanamo Bay Detainees

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Friends of NPR are familiar with the quirky “This American Life” hosted by Ira Glass. We can always count on the unconventional and often humorous angles that Ira finds to illuminate some aspect of our society. What a surprise he had for us this week.

This week’s show was a superb examination of the status of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the best I have heard on this complex story. It had it all:

  • interviews with several of the pro bono lawyers for the detainees,
  • interviews with a number of former detainees,
  • discussions with experts on the legal precedents,
  • a summary of the exhaustive Seton Hall Law School report on what is know about the 517 detainees,
  • and the origins of habeas corpus in English common law.
  • It closed with a pointed history lesson: After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Lord Clarendon, acting as Charles’ prime minister, hunted down and imprisoned some suspected of regicide on the island of Jersey, supposedly outside the bounds of English law. Parliament, which could have been sympathetic with these efforts to deal with terrorists, impeached him for his “arbitrary” efforts. In response, it passed the Habeas Corpus Act in 1679 to guarantee this ancient right.

So, who should care about an obscure latin phrase and these detainees? All of us who trace our understanding of freedom, liberty, and justice back to the medieval English struggle between Kings and Nobles should care deeply. The right to be brought to court to determine the legality of your imprisonment is an ancient right, the bedrock of the rule of law in our democracies. As just one example, the American colonists repeatedly appealed to the right of habeas corpus to protest their arbitrary imprisonment for a variety of offenses in the run-up to the Revolution. It’s frequent violation was one of Jefferson’s primary grievances against England in the Declaration of Independence. In this light it is no surprise that the right of habeas corpus was guaranteed in the American Constitution, Article 1, section 9. Our Anglo-Saxon history has shown that the ‘march of freedom’ cannot bypass the courts. Let’s pray that the rule of law will once again prevail for the detainees in Guantanamo Bay.

This program will be available as RealAudio next week. Be sure to listen then.

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