Three Fifths of an Attorney General Declares POWs “Non-Persons”

John LaForge

Hand it to President Obama for appointing Eric Holder the first African American Attorney General in US history. Then try to fathom that after generations of civil and human and civil rights work by African Americans -- whom the constitution originally called “3/5 of a person” -- it is AG Holder who declares some brown skinned prisoners of war to be “non-persons.” The men are held outside the law by the US at Guantánamo Bay.
Attorneys have appealed for an order that would allow the POWs to join group prayers during the holy month of Ramadan. But Holder’s Justice Dept., opposing the appeal, says the men aren’t entitled to relief under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) because the Supreme Court has not found that Guantánamo’s inmates “are ‘persons’ to whom RFRA applies.”
Holder calls them “unprivileged enemy belligerents detained overseas during a period of ongoing hostilities.” Calling them Prisoners of War would require respecting their human rights.
Cori Crider, an attorney for some of the men, said, “I fail to see how the President can stand up and claim Guantánamo is a scandal while his lawyers call detainees non-persons in court. If the President is serious about closing this prison, he could start by recognizing that its inmates are people -- most of whom have been cleared by his own Government.”
According to Holder, US Appeals Court precedent holds that Guantánamo prisoners, as “nonresident aliens outside the United States sovereign territory” are “not protected ‘person[s].’” Holder says that in the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court refused to say that “‘person’ as used in RFRA includes a nonresident alien outside sovereign United States territory.”
Even if it applied to this case, Holder claims, the RFRA “cannot overcome the judicial presumption against extraterritorial application of statutes.” Translation: The reason we’re isolating anybody in an off-shore military penal colony in the first place is so we can ignore or violate US law (”statutes”) with impunity. And if we convince ourselves that “unprivileged enemy belligerents” are not people, we should be able to sleep even if we violate the US Torture Act for years on end.

America’s indefinite imprisonment without charges, hunger strikers, and force-feeding

Jail and prison time for me, all for political protests, has always come with a sentence: six days, 30 days, 90 days, six months. Anybody who’s been inside knows that the release date gives you something fast to hold on to, even if you’re called by a number, fed through a slot and handcuffed for court. But imagine 168 months on a remote “extraterritorial” military prison with no charges, no trial, no sentence, no visits, phone calls, mail, and no hope.
This is what the Land of the Free is imposing at Guantánamo, a torturous psychological vice of legal oblivion and manufactured futurelessness. Add to this appalling construction the fact that 72 of the 149 remaining inmates have for over four years been approved for release -- but are chained up anyway. Scores of Gitmo’s inmates have looked into this man-made oblivion and decided to die. They are using the only power they have left, the dreadful hunger-strike -- which is both a protest against their indefinite detention without trial and their only means of eventually ending it.
The US military has chosen to force-feed hunger strikers, gruesomely plunging plastic tubes down the noses of the non-persons. This abuse is a violation of the US Torture Act, and the force-feeding schedule is the original basis for the religious rights petition so vigorously opposed by Obama and Holder. The horrific traumatic stress resulting from enduring force-feeding -- an ordeal that US District Judge Gladys Kessler condemned for causing unnecessary “agony” -- makes Ramadan’s prayerful reflection impossible. For PR purposes the Pentagon and Justice Department call the torture “enteral feeding.”
The Justice Dept. argues that complaints about “alleged aspects of enteral feeding” and “allegations that detainees who were being enterally fed were not permitted to pray communally during Ramadan in 2013” are not credible. But after the number of hunger strikers reached 106 last year, the military halted its reporting of the strike.
Significantly, a Navy medical officer at Guantanamo has become the first prison official there known to refuse to force-feed prisoners. The unidentified nurse’s refusal was made known July 15.
If Holder wins his frightening argument denying the humanity of the men at Guantánamo, even the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals might object. The ASPCA says its vision is that “the US is a humane community in which all animals are treated with respect and kindness.”

John LaForge is a co-director of Nukewatch a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin.