Thursday, August 7, 2008

Forgetting justice in the process

Yesterday, while the media was still putting into perspective the life of Russian writer and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn three days after his death, Salim Hamdan was found guilty of "supporting terrorism" by a US military court at Guantanamo Bay.

Solzhenitsyn, who spent time in a Soviet prison camp and was later exiled for his writings, was hailed in the West for bravely and honestly showing the world the violence, hypocrisy and lies of Soviet communism. For most of the two decades outside his native land the Nobel laureate lived in Cavendish, Vermont, writing and shunning the spotlight.

Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden who's been held for six years as an "enemy combatant," is the first person successfully tried by the sloppily-configured US war-crimes court -- the first such proceedings since World War II. The trial has raised many objections from human-rights advocates for the lack of typical legal protections during the trial: testimony gathered using coercion was allowed, hearsay was admitted as evidence, the defense was unable to see all of the evidence, and just a two-thirds vote was needed for conviction.

The judge, jury and almost all of the attorneys were members of the US military -- hardly a prescription for fairness -- but those tasked with defending Hamdan were cited as doing a noble job, and they frequently railed against the unjustness of the process. In the end, regardless of whether he was found guilty or acquitted, Hamdan is likely never to be set free, as the Bush Administration has given itself unlimited power to hold combatants until the end of the "war on terror" -- in essence, permanently.

Solzhenitsyn's words played a role in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Someone, now or in the future, will write the Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib versions of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago. Let us hope that our nation rises up and recommits itself to justice and equal protection under the law before we become too much like the enemy laid bare in the famed Russian's books.

Update: Salim Hamdan was sentenced today to 5 1/2 years after being convicted yesterday of supporting terrorism. The decision, handed down by a jury at the US military court in Guantanamo Bay, was much less than the 30 years to life that prosecutors asked for. Counting time served, Hamdan could be released in just five months, though it remains to be seen if that will be the case.

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