WASHINGTON – Not knowing the status of his brother in Guantanamo Bay is “a bit like having an arm or a leg cut off,but it's inside. You feel like something's been removed from you and you have to live with it.”
Aymen Sassi,21,traveled from Lyon,France,in search of answers on behalf of the family that has not seen his brother,Nizar Sassi,23,since 2001.
His brow knit,Sassi hunched over the podium while his translator described to a roomful of reporters Tuesday the anguish Sassi's family and their Lyon community had experienced over the treatment of Sassi's brother and another Lyon man,both detained after traveling to Pakistan to learn Arabic as part of a “religious quest.”
Next month,the Supreme Court will review the U.S. government's actions regarding prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
In anticipation of the court argument,the American Civil Liberties Union held a news conference at which Sassi and the father of another detainee urged that more than 600 men from 44 countries captured in Afghanistan or turned over to U.S. officials as members of the Taliban or al Qaeda be given lawyers and due process. About 100 of the original group have been released or turned over to other governments.
“Our concern is about the basic due process right that must be afforded to all persons,citizens and non-citizens alike,” said Anthony Romero,ACLU executive director at a speech to the National Press Club before the news conference. “We must not create an island outside of the law where people can be held without rights.”
The ACLU “makes no assertion” about the guilt or innocence of any of the detainees,Romero said.
Not allowing “due process” procedures for the detainees would set a “dangerous precedent that could be applied by other countries against our very own soldiers fighting abroad,” he added.
Maj. Michael Shavers,a Defense Department spokesman,speaking about Sassi,said,“I don't have specifics on his particular case,but if he's at Guantanamo Bay,he probably had a tie to the Taliban or al Qaeda,” or was captured on the battlefield.
Shavers said these detainments are not violations of domestic or international law. Customary international law,he said,protects a government's right to detain an enemy combatant without providing legal counsel.
One possible exception,he said,is “if you've violated the law of armed conflict,you would be given a lawyer,because at that point,you are being looked at criminally.”
Romero said that during Operation Desert Storm,the U.S. Army held 1,196 tribunals to “determine the status of ‘enemy combatants.'” Of these,310 were granted prisoner of war status and some “were found to be displaced civilians and were ultimately treated as refugees.”
“The government's current position is a dramatic departure from prior practice,” Romero said. Last week,the Defense Department announced plans to “periodically” review the status of detainees not brought before commissions,Romero said. But,he added,this action is nothing more than a “fig leaf on what is still a fundamentally lawless process.”
Police in Great Britain arrested four Guantanamo detainees and held a fifth Tuesday after they were released and flown to an air base near London,the Associated Press reported. Britain had urged the United States to try the men or send them home. Four British nationals remain at Guantanamo.