By Jennifer Turner, Human Rights Researcher, ACLU Human Rights Program
Yesterday marked the final military commission hearing before the eve of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration. The question of what will become of Guantánamo was a subject of much speculation in the days before yesterday's pre-trial hearing in the case of Saudi national Ahmed Mohammed al Darbi. Al Darbi has been held in U.S. custody for six years and is charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism based on alleged connections to al-Qaeda.
Just before concluding yesterday's hearing, the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, raised the issue on everyone's mind, unaddressed in other post-election hearings. With al Darbi's trial slated to start in late March, he said, "The court is aware that on January 20 there will be a new commander-in-chief, which may or may not impact on these proceedings." He cautioned, "Both sides should know that unless and until a competent authority tells us not to, prepare to proceed as scheduled."
At this, al Darbi motioned that he wished to address the court. Through an interpreter, Al Darbi spoke:
"Your honor, you had mentioned there will be a new president on January 20. I hope this location will be closed as he promised," he announced. He continued, "I am hopeful that Mr. President Obama will make good on his promise and earn back the legitimacy the United States has lost in the eyes of the world, as a world leader."
"I am asking this nation that claims to be a world power to respect their Constitution so that they can regain their leadership," al Darbi added.
As he spoke, al Darbi held up a photograph of Barack Obama. When I looked more closely, I realized that he was holding a copy of the ACLU's full-page New York Times ad that ran on November 10. The ad consists of a photograph of President-elect Barack Obama and a quotation from his campaign pledge that, "As president, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions." It launched an ACLU campaign calling on President-elect Barack Obama to close the Guantánamo Bay prison and end the military commissions on Day One of his presidency. The judge admitted al Darbi's copy of the ACLU ad into evidence.
Al Darbi's defense lawyers later said they had no idea how al Darbi obtained the ACLU ad (and the ACLU certainly didn't give it to him), though the detainees do have some access to news. Al Darbi articulated a now common refrain. For much of the world, Guantánamo has become a symbol of injustice, abuse, and the Bush administration's excesses in the name of the "war on terror." It has damaged America's image and standing in the world. During the campaign, Obama described Guantánamo as "a sad chapter in American history." Though it may require political capital and hard decisions, President-elect Obama must close Guantánamo immediately upon taking office. By doing so, he can end the poisonous legacy of the Bush administration's policies and take a critical first step in restoring American values of justice, due process, and human rights.