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U.S. Ecumenical Delegation Denied Visit to
NCC Continues to Press for Detainees' Due Process Rights
January 21, 2004, NEW YORK CITY - The U.S. Department of Defense has denied a written request from the National Council of Churches USA (NCC) for permission to send a small interfaith delegation to visit detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay later this month.
NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar made the request in a Dec. 8, 2003, letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. On Jan. 16, he received a reply from Dr. Jeffrey M. Starr, Principal Director for Special Operations Program Support in the U.S. Department of Defense, who wrote, “Unfortunately it is not possible for your group to meet with the enemy combatants detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”
In response, Dr. Edgar said today that the NCC would “seek a meeting with U.S. government officials to press the issue of faith leaders’ access to the Guantanamo detainees.”
The Council also will continue to advocate for the due process rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees, he said. The NCC is part of a broad coalition of domestic and international religious, legal and human rights organizations that filed a friend of the court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 14, asserting that foreign nationals being held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay have the right to challenge the legality of their detention.
PERMISSION FOR INTERFAITH VISIT WAS REQUESTED DEC. 8
The Rev. Dr. Edgar said in the Dec. 8 letter that he and other U.S. religious leaders, including the heads of several denominations, would be in Cuba Jan. 22-28 for the consecration of a new Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Havana and for consultation with Cuban and other Latin American religious leaders, and requested that “a small group from this U.S. delegation” along with Muslim, Jewish and other religious community leaders “be allowed to visit the detainees at Guantanamo Bay while in Cuba.”
“This request stems from our religious conviction that all people - regardless of religion, culture, or status - be treated with dignity, which translates to humanitarian concern for the detainees’ physical and mental well being, and pastoral concern for their spiritual well being,” he wrote. “This conviction reinforces our civic concern as Americans for their rights under accepted international agreements and U.S. law.”
“The members of our delegation each represent large constituencies that share these human rights concerns,” Dr. Edgar wrote. “It would certainly reassure these religious leaders and their churches to know that their concerns are respected by our country’s political leaders. Therefore I urge you to grant this request and allow members of the delegation to visit Guantanamo.”
In his reply, which Dr. Edgar received Jan. 16, Dr. Starr noted, “The United States continues to be engaged in an armed conflict with al Qaida and its supporters.” Access to detainees “is only provided to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and on a case-by-case basis to government officials for legitimate government purposes,” he wrote.
He went on to assure Dr. Edgar that the United States “has treated and will continue to treat enemy combatants humanely and, to the extent appropriate, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949. They are provided with proper shelter and excellent medical care,” Dr. Starr wrote. “Each is allowed to exercise his religious beliefs, and have been provided a Koran to do so. Additionally, all are provided food consistent with their religious requirements.”
BACKGROUND ON FRIEND OF THE COURT BRIEF
The National Council of Churches is part of a broad coalition of domestic and international religious, legal and human rights organizations participating in a friend of the court brief - filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 14 by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights -- in Al Odah v. United States and Rasul v. Bush-consolidated cases that will test the assertion that the approximately 660 foreign nationals held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have no means of challenging the legality of their detention in court.
“What we are saying is that there is no land without law. The law of the United States requires due process, and so does international law,” said Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, the NCC’s Associate General Secretary for International Affairs and Peace, New York. “The NCC, as a religious organization, is interested from a moral standpoint in the right to due process, which is being denied the detainees in Guantanamo.”
Despite widespread international protest, the United States has been holding foreign nationals from more than 40 different countries at Guantanamo since early 2002. The detainees have not been afforded a hearing to determine their participation in any conflict, or their connection to any crime.
At issue before the Supreme Court is an expansive decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which held that foreign nationals detained at Guantanamo may not petition U.S. courts for review of their detention-because Guantanamo is not formally U.S. “sovereign” territory. This ruling came despite the fact that U.S. courts are the only courts to which detainees can assert their innocence. The U.S. government exercises “complete jurisdiction and control” over Guantanamo under a perpetual lease signed by Cuba and the United States in 1903.
The brief argues that the Guantanamo detainees are entitled to review of their detention under the U.S. habeas corpus statute, which applies to anyone detained in violation of the laws or treaties of the United States. In their habeas petitions, the detainees argue that their detention violates the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War and the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution-both eligible grounds for review under the statute.
The brief also warns that the D.C. Circuit’s decision places the United States in conflict with other democracies, including Israel and the United Kingdom, which have long rejected the notion that governments can sidestep judicial review by holding individuals outside their sovereign territory. It also places the United States in violation of international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United States formally adopted in 1992.
“The National Council of Churches has a long tradition of advocating for civil liberties and human rights,” said Dr. Kireopoulos. “In essence, in this case, we are urging our country, as a citizen of the world, to uphold the rights mandated by our international obligations - indeed, by our own Constitution.”
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