Even suspected terrorists are entitled to humane treatment and a fair trial
18 January 2002
This is not the "patient justice" of which President George Bush spoke in his measured address to the joint houses of Congress nine days after 11 September. The United States government is engaged in the extra-judicial humiliation of alleged terrorists in order to satisfy the understandable but misguided desire of many Americans for vengeance.
Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, made it abundantly clear that, while anyone who had thought about the issue for more than the length of a soundbite knew that the treatment of the detainees was wrong, Mr Bush considered it politically necessary. "The President is satisfied that they are being treated as Americans would want people to be treated," he said.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, is happy to play to this particular gallery. "I do not feel even the slightest concern about their treatment," he has said. "They are being treated vastly better than they treated anybody else."
This is the language of the school playground, not of patient justice. The al-Qa'ida terrorists have committed terrible crimes - which is why it is so important to show the value of universal human rights. That means they must be treated not just better than they have treated others, but in accordance with the principles of law, which include the rights to a fair trial and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Tony Blair and Jack Straw have not been quite so cavalier with the assumption that every one of the prisoners held at the US military base in Cuba is a terrorist. Mr Blair even said in the Commons on Wednesday that it was "important not to say anything that prejudices their defence", but both repeatedly give support to the US's actions by patronisingly reminding questioners that "we are dealing with highly dangerous people."
Of course we are. Given that al-Qa'ida's interest in aviation has not been entirely benign, severe restraints for the prisoners on the flight from Kandahar to Guantanamo are obviously necessary. But the Foreign Secretary's defence of the use of hoods, to ensure that prisoners "couldn't signal to each other", is craven.
It is this intention to degrade that will prove most counter-productive. There seems little hope that the US President intends to live up to the high moral principles - the founding principles of the American nation - that he enumerated in his address to the joint houses of Congress. He should at least, however, be swayed by arguments of practical national interest. There can be no worse context for the diplomatic efforts of his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, now in Afghanistan and shortly to visit Pakistan and India, than headlines around the world about the apparent determination of the US to humiliate its enemies.
The forced shaving of beards will be seen in many countries whose co-operation the US needs as a deliberate insult to Islam. The administration must be persuaded not to press on to the next stage of its short-sighted and self-defeating appeasement of domestic opinion, namely the trial of alleged terrorists by special military tribunals, which would be unconstitutional on US soil and possibly in breach of international law anywhere else.
The decision to try the American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh in a civil court in the US therefore sets a useful precedent. Because some of the detainees are British citizens, Mr Blair and Mr Straw have every right to argue that case as forcefully as possible with Mr Bush. The Australian defence minister has already said publicly that his government wants David Hicks, an Australian Taliban fighter, to be tried in Australia. The British Government should say, not just that the Britons should be tried in Britain, but that all the alleged terrorists should be subject to international, and patient, justice.
(c) 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd