Truth and the Gitmo Detainees

Is every prisoner at Guantanamo really a terrorist?


"Islamic terrorists have constitutional rights," lamented one conservative blog when the Supreme Court said Guantanamo inmates can challenge their detention in court. "These are enemy combatants," railed John McCain. The court, charged former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy of National Review, sided with foreigners "whose only connection with our body politic is their bloody jihad against Americans."

The operating assumption here is that the prisoners are terrorists who were captured while fighting a vicious war against the United States. But can the critics be sure? All they really know about the Guantanamo detainees is that they are Guantanamo detainees. To conclude that they are all bloodthirsty jihadists requires believing that the U.S. government is infallible.

But how sensible is that approach? Judging from a little-noticed federal appeals court decision that came down after the Supreme Court ruling, not very.

The case involved Huzaifa Parhat, a Chinese Muslim who fled to Afghanistan in May 2001 to escape persecution of his Uighur ethnic group by the Beijing government. When the U.S. invaded after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Uighur camp where he lived was destroyed by air strikes. He and his compatriots made their way to Pakistan, where villagers handed them over to the government, which transferred them to American custody.

You might think you would have to do something pretty obvious to wind up in Guantanamo. Apparently not. The U.S. government does not claim Parhat was a member of the Taliban or al-Qaida. He was not captured on a battlefield. The government's own military commission admitted it found no evidence that he "committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition partners."

So why did the Pentagon insist on holding him as an enemy combatant? Because he was affiliated with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a separatist Muslim group fighting for independence from Beijing. It had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks but reputedly got help from al-Qaida.

But the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, after reviewing secret documents submitted by the government, found that there was no real evidence. It said the flimsy case mounted against Parhat "comes perilously close to suggesting that whatever the government says must be treated as true." And it ruled that, based on the information available, he was not an enemy combatant even under the Pentagon's own definition of the term.

Is this verdict just another act of judicial activism by arrogant liberals on the bench? Not by a long shot.

Of the three judges who signed the opinion, one, Thomas Griffith, was appointed in 2005 by President Bush himself. Another, David Sentelle, was nominated in 1985 by President Reagan—and had earlier joined in ruling that the Guantanamo detainees could not go to federal court to assert their innocence (a decision the Supreme Court overturned).

The administration could hardly have asked for a more accommodating group of judges. Yet they found in favor of the detainee on the simple grounds that if the government is going to imprison someone as an enemy combatant, it needs some evidence that he is one.

Parhat may not be an exceptional case. Most of the prisoners were not captured by the U.S. in combat but were turned over by local forces, often in exchange for a bounty. We had to take someone else's word that they were bad guys.

A 2006 report by Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux found that only 8 percent of those held at Guantanamo were al-Qaida fighters. Even a study done at West Point concluded that just 73 percent of the detainees were a "demonstrated threat"—which means 27 percent were not.

The Parhat case doesn't prove that everyone in detention at Guantanamo is an innocent victim of some misunderstanding. But it does show the dangers of trusting the administration—any administration—to act as judge, jury, and jailer. It illustrates the need for an independent review to make sure there is some reason to believe the people being treated as terrorists really deserve it.

If any particular detainees are as bad as the administration claims, it should have no trouble making that case in court. But there is nothing to be gained from the indefinite imprisonment of someone whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Keeping innocent people behind bars is a tragedy for them and a waste for us.