• Open the dungeons
    May 14,2007

    Sen. Patrick Leahy no doubt understands the struggles Robert Gensburg has had in defending his client at the Guantanamo detention center.

    Gensburg is a St. Johnsbury lawyer who has arranged to defend Abdul Zaher, an Afghan held as an enemy combatant at Guantanamo. Gensburg recently described the obstacles the government has created to hinder Gensburg's defense of his client.

    It took more than a year even for Gensburg to meet Zaher, who has been held in solitary confinement for 13 months. The government required Gensburg to get a security clearance to see Zaher and also to see documents supporting his detention. After Gensburg met with Zaher, he had to surrender his notes.

    "There is no law at Guantanamo," Gensburg said. "There is nothing I have been able to do successfully to get the Army to obey its own regulations."

    Zaher has been held at Guantanamo for five years after the army seized him from his village in Afghanistan. The government is able to do this in part because of a law passed last year doing away with the habeas corpus rights of so-called enemy combatants. The writ of habeas corpus is the constitutional principle that allows anyone who is imprisoned to challenge the basis of his imprisonment. Ordinarily, people cannot be held without being charged with a crime. But the Military Commissions Act, passed last year by the Republican-controlled Congress, dispensed with habeas corpus for prisoners such as those now held at Guantanamo. A New York Times editorial called the act "one of the worst laws in the nation's history."

    Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is one of several sponsors of bills that would restore the habeas corpus rights of those held in U.S. jails. Apparently, however, there is reluctance among some Democrats to bring the habeas corpus issue to a vote because of the fear that the issue could be used against them by Republicans seeking to tar them as soft on terrorism.

    Leahy has his hands full these days, particularly with the mushrooming scandal involving the firing of U.S. attorneys. Steadily mounting information seems to suggest that the initial scandal, which concerned the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, is the tip of the iceberg. The real story is the Bush administration's efforts to tamper with elections by bringing phony election fraud charges against Democrats.

    It is important for Leahy and fellow Democrats to pursue the election-tampering scandal; meanwhile, Robert Gensburg continues to be left out in the cold with regard to his client at Guantanamo. If the government has convincing evidence that Abdul Zither is a dangerous terrorist and that he deserved to lose five years of his life and ought to be held indefinitely, then let the government show it. The United States is not 18th century France where people were left to rot in dungeons. Except that is how the government is behaving.

    The Democrats should not fear taking action to correct the unconstitutional abuses of the Bush administration. That is why the people elected them last November. It is no longer in the political interest of Democrats to behave in the timorous fashion of the past. Voters not longer have the patience for that. The Constitution needs its defenders.

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