Shift on Muslim detention must not merely make them new blacks in US

Thu, Jan 22, 2009, 00:00

ANALYSIS:Halting Guantánamo trials is hardly enough. Obama’s plan is very welcome, but alone it is not a sufficient step in improving the US’s legal attitudes to Muslims, writes ASIM QURESHI.

WITHIN HOURS of taking office, President Barack Obama has issued an order to stop the military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay so as to review and possibly overhaul them.

Many would have hoped that the decision would have gone well beyond a mere review of the Military Commissions process. However there has been a clear message that justice will be provided to the detainees.

The projected aim of the new administration to close the base has been declared a triumph from those in his camp. Although the human rights community has welcomed this position despite its delayed arrival, there are a number of questions that still hang heavy around the necks of those who must find an alternative solution.

One of the main sticking points that will be brought by human rights campaigners is the number of detainees being held as part of the “war on terror” elsewhere in the world. With reports of 24,000 detainees in Iraq and 14,000 in secret detention, such numbers seem astronomical compared with the 250 or so detainees remaining in Guantánamo.

In light of this, dealing with Guantánamo is the easy option for Obama despite his attempts to show an overt commitment to human rights and the rule of law. The extent to which such policies will be taken further to those detained outside of Guantánamo will still need to be seen.

From the perspective of abuse and torture, the detainees unanimously agree that Guantánamo was far more humane than any of the prisons in which they were held elsewhere. Detainees speak of their time in Bagram Airbase and the Dark Prison, both in Afghanistan and both steeped in some of the worst offences by US soldiers against detainees. Despite the scandal to emerge from the Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the volume of those detained without charge in US department of defence facilities remains staggering and well beyond reasonable, especially in light of the grievances attached to Guantánamo.

Measures have already been drafted to bring about a change in policy from the Bush period as legislation is used as a key tool to counteract illegality.

On January 6th, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California proposed a new law, the Lawful Interrogation and Detention Act 2009, to “reverse the harmful, dangerous, un-American and illegal detention and interrogation practices of the past seven years”.

The Feinstein proposal has four aims:

  • The detention camps at Guantánamo Bay must be closed;
  • The CIA’s coercive interrogation programme must be outlawed;
  • Civilian contractors must be prevented from being involved in the process of interrogation;
  • CIA “black” sites used as part of the programme of secret detention must be ended.

The implementation of these would be hailed as a great victory by human rights groups and would prove that change is possible under the Obama administration.

In the words of Feinstein, these changes would allow for detainees to be charged with a crime and tried in the US in the federal civilian or military justice systems.

With all the attention on Guantánamo, the question of justice for Muslim suspected terrorists in the US legal system has never truly been raised. Decades of African- Americans being incapable of receiving fair trials in certain courts in the US has brought about the need for a major shift in policy: nothing has said that more clearly than the election of a black president.

It is this point in itself that provides the greatest challenge to the new administration. How will it stop Muslims becoming the new blacks in the US judicial system, when a number of cases suggest it is inconceivable that they could possibly receive a fair trial?

One case of particular importance is that of Ali Saleh al-Marri, the last enemy combatant on US soil. For 7½ years, he has been detained in the US without having been charged with any crime. In his case, Guantánamo is in the US itself as much as it is in Cuba.

Marri’s case is only one though among a sea of others wrought with procedural and ethical difficulties. Biased juries, insufficient evidence and disproportionate sentencing have become key features of the way in which Muslim suspected terrorists are treated.

Sabri ben Kahla was detained as part of Virginia Paintball trials and acquitted of any involvement with jihad or terrorism. Kahla was later detained again on a perjury charge and convicted on the same facts as the original case to a sentence of 10 years.

The prosecution’s case rested on evidence by Evan Kohlmann, a purported terrorism expert, who gave evidence on jihad movements around the world without ever referencing Kahla’s guilt. The guilty verdict was very much based on Kahla’s Muslim identity rather than any tangible evidence.

The imminent closure of Guantánamo Bay is a policy change that should be praised. However, by itself, it does not represent the necessary shift that proves that the US has truly changed its attitude to detention policies in the “war on terror”.

Public opinion in the US may have improved over the years in relation to the African-American community. However, there is a very real danger that the bias may have merely displaced itself on to Muslims – a community which to all intents and purposes has become the new black. – ( First published by The Guardian online,

  • Asim Qureshi is a senior researcher at Cageprisoners, a body which seeks to represent the prisoners held in Guantánamo. He has led investigations into Pakistan, Bosnia, Kenya, Sudan, Sweden, the US and around the UK. He is also the author of Rules of the Game, due to be published in May by Hurst, which will analyse global detention policies in the post-9/11 era and their impact on detainees