Since January 2002, when the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was established, more of its 779 detainees have died in custody (nine) than have been convicted (seven) in civilian court or by military commissions. Six of the detainees reportedly committed suicide. The most recent death occurred last month. Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a 36-year-old citizen of Yemen, was found unconscious in his cell and could not be revived. After nearly 4,000 days in Guantánamo, he was finally “released”—in a casket.
Mr. Latif’s is a tragic story. At age 18 he suffered a serious head injury in a car accident in Yemen. In later testimony, he explained that he traveled to Jordan, and then Pakistan, for treatment. In late 2001 he was arrested by Pakistani authorities, accused of fighting for the Taliban and transferred to U.S. custody.
Mr. Latif was one of the first detainees to arrive in Guantánamo. As early as 2004, and multiple times thereafter, the U.S. military determined that Mr. Latif was “not known to have participated in combatant/terrorist training” and cleared him for transfer to Yemen. In 2010 Mr. Latif finally received a hearing in federal court. Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. examined the government’s evidence, found it uncorroborated and “not sufficiently reliable,” and he ruled Mr. Latif’s detention “not lawful.” The appellate court, however, decided 2 to 1 in the government’s favor, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
It is another cruelty that Mr. Latif languished in Guantánamo simply because of where he was born. In January 2010 President Obama placed a moratorium on all detainee transfers to Yemen regardless of individual situations. The indefinite nature of his detention weighed heavily on Mr. Latif. In fragile physical condition and poor mental health, he attempted suicide at least once and often communicated his despair through poetry and letters. The detainee “who is able to die,” he wrote, “will be able to achieve happiness for himself….”
The Letter to the Hebrews implores the Christian community to “be mindful of prisoners as if sharing their imprisonment” (13:3). This call to awareness, empathy and solidarity invites us to listen with open hearts and minds to the stories of prisoners like Adnan Latif and to recognize our complicity in their suffering. For some the complicity is active; it involves demonizing prisoners or legislating out of fear, not fairness. For most Americans the complicity is characterized by indifference.
As concerned parties await autopsy results for Mr. Latif, the Obama administration is busy defending a controversial provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. The provision grants broad executive authority to use indefinite military detention without charges or trials for terrorism suspects. Last month Judge Katherine B. Forrest issued a permanent injunction against the provision, ruling that it unlawfully expanded executive detention authority, failed to shield U.S. citizens from indefinite military detention and failed to specify adequately what counts as prohibited activity. In response, the Obama administration immediately requested, and won, a stay.
These legal disputes, however, can dangerously obscure a more fundamental question: Is it ever morally acceptable to detain a person, citizen or not, possibly for the rest of his life, without charges or a trial? Consider the Golden Rule. If a foreign government detained you, or a loved one, what would you expect as due process? Detailed charges? A presumption of innocence? Humane interrogation, skilled legal representation, access to evidence, ability to call witnesses, fair courtroom procedures, an independent judicial authority, a public trial within a reasonable amount of time and, if you are not charged or convicted, the freedom to return home to family? Some might argue that “terrorists” forfeit these rights. But this presumes guilt. No detaining authority, whether foreign or American, should have unchecked power over a person’s liberty.
The United States failed to treat Adnan Latif in accord with the Golden Rule. His only relief from Guantánamo was death itself. The Obama administration has no plan to prosecute or release 48 detainees in Guantánamo and hundreds more in Afghanistan. These men face the prospect that they will be “released” in the same tragic manner as Mr. Latif. In Guantánamo, 85 other detainees, already approved for release or transfer, remain in custody.
What has sustained this perversion of justice? As a nation, we have failed to acknowledge and repent of our sins. The problem is both political and spiritual. Leaving persons detained for an indefinite period of time is an inhumane practice that results in hopelessness, despair and sometimes, tragically, death. Human dignity requires that the United States reject this practice and firmly renew its commitment to basic fairness for all.