Book Review: Rendering justice at Guantanamo Bay?

31st Mar 2013

The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay. By Jess Bravin, New Haven: Yale University Press. pp440. HB. 2013. £20.

The author of this book is the US Supreme Court correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and is author of and contributor to several books. He is also a lecturer at the University of California’s Washington Center and has been closely following events at US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba since the establishment of that institution.

Soon after the horrific attacks of September 11, the US captured hundreds of suspected al-Qa’ida operatives in Afghanistan and from other parts of the world, and began to transfer the detainees to Guantanamo Bay. As per President George W. Bush’s executive order, the detainees were subjected to trial by military commissions. This was an unprecedented move as it led to the creation of a parallel justice system, which, as expected, presented new challenges and difficulties for the military personnel, lawyers and politicians.

Since Jess Bravin has been observing events at Guantanamo Bay from the beginning, he had direct access to military personnel, lawyers and others who were involved with the military commissions there, coupled with extensive investigative reporting the author has presented his findings in this book for the benefit of the public.

Consisting of 16 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, the author argues that the capture of suspected al-Qa’ida operatives from around the world and the setting up of the military prison in Guantanamo Bay as well as the military commissions to try the detainees was influenced by vested ideological and political interests that dominated the Administration in Washington.

He takes the readers behind the scenes, showing how prosecutors being determined to bringing suspected terrorists to justice found themselves in conflict over military commission rules and procedures, and established American legal tradition. Accordingly, many American military officers and lawyers found themselves caught in the middle of a legal, moral and professional no-man’s land as they struggled to reconcile their duties and tasks with their moral principles.

For instance, the author explains how Lt Col Stuart Couch, a brave Marine Officer, refused to prosecute suspects who had confessed to their ‘crimes’ due to torture.

Drawing on his extensive knowledge and understanding of the American legal history and context, the author provides a picture of a parallel legal system in operation in Guantanamo Bay that not only undermined American values but it also sent the wrong message to the rest of the world.

According to the author, “During the Bush administration, commissions were conceived and championed by officials whose primary motive was redistributing powers from the legislative and judicial branches to the executive. Commissions were an expression of that ideology rather than a pragmatic response to an irresolvable problem. Barack Obama hardly shared that agenda, and nothing in his record suggests that he would have instigated commissions had he been president on 9/11. But Obama was persuaded that his political capital was better spent on other priorities – health care, economic recovery, the Iraq drawdown –than on dismantling the legal infrastructure Bush’s lawyers had labored to create.” (pp.380-1)

As the US prepares to put on trial the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, this book is an interesting, timely and informative contribution. It is worth reading.

Muhammad Khan. Khan is author of The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (forthcoming, June 2013)


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