Justice Delayed by Indefinite Detention

April 18, 2016Jacob Kraus-Preminger

In the book of Deuteronomy, we find one of the best-known social justice texts in our tradition: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (16:20). This famous verse leaves room for broad interpretation of how to actually engage in the pursuit of justice, but two verses before, we see one specific command that can guide us: “You shall appoint judges and officers in all of your gates, which God has given you, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18). Mishpat-tzedek, or righteous judgment, is an important component of any society focused on justice, accountability and equity.

Unfortunately, many terrorism suspects detained by our government do not have a chance at righteous judgment, or any judgment at all. They are held in a state of indefinite detention, without being told what they are accused of, how long they will be imprisoned or if they will be put to trial. Indefinite detention violates international laws and the right to a fair and speedy trial that we cherish as Americans. Physicians for Human Rights has found that indefinite detention can result in severe anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and “Enduring personality changes and permanent estrangement from family and community that compromises any hope of the detainee regaining a normal life following release.”

The policy of indefinite detention, which has been employed by both the Bush and Obama administrations since the start of the War on Terror, grows out of an application of the laws of war. International laws concerning wartime detainees allow enemy combatants to be held without a trial until the conflict is over. While this may make sense during standard wars between states, the current War on Terror is being waged against an ever-changing field of non-state actors and against an extremist ideology. It is difficult to imagine an end to such a war.

Moreover, our experience with terrorism suspects confirms that more humane approaches are actually more effective. Those captured on American soil, including Al-Qaeda operatives directly linked to the September 11, 2001 attacks, and tried in federal courts have been more quickly convicted of their crimes and currently serve sentences in secure prisons in the U.S. Data also shows that, under the current process used to evaluate the continued detention of prisoners at Guantanamo, those whom the government has decided to release to other countries have reengaged in extremist activities at rates below 5%. Not only is it generally safe to release detainees who our government has no reason or evidence to try, but it is more effective to try those who need to face trial in federal courts.

Experience shows what our texts know to be true – righteous judgement through a fair and speedy trial enhances our security and vitality as a society. As a 2003 URJ resolution on national security and civil liberties states, “protections of privacy and due process embedded in our judicial system must not be diminished for the sake of expedience.” This is why our Movement advocates for the dignity of U.S. detainees and against the policy of indefinite detention. Take action now by asking President Obama and his administration to continue taking steps to end indefinite detention at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. You can also learn more about our work to defend civil liberties for all by visiting RAC.org.

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