(2 of 6)
If you are a government hungry for clues about the enemies' plans, one problem with the Geneva Convention governing treatment of traditional prisoners of war is that it includes strict rules limiting interrogation. So these detainees are called "enemy combatants," and there is no field manual outlining the rules for handling them. Inmates arrive with no knowledge of how long they will stay, facing the possibility of trial by a military tribunal whose procedures have yet to be tested, on charges that have yet to be revealed and that carry sentences that may depend on not just what crimes they committed but what country they are from. The U.S. last week cut a deal with Australia that if its detainee David Hicks is found guilty, he will not be executed and will be allowed to have his family in the courtroom and talk to his lawyers without Americans listening in. But the Brits are pushing for more, and what about the inmates from Yemen or Pakistan or Afghanistan? Seeing the risks of multiple standards of justice, Pentagon officials said last week that they are conducting a wholesale review of the tribunal rules.
Washington attorney Thomas Wilner represents the families of 12 Kuwaiti detainees whose case is among those the Supreme Court will hear early next year. He rejects the Bush Administration's insistence that detainees have no legal rights. "The arrogance of saying 'Well, we're feeding them well' is just absolutely absurd," he argues. Two of his clients' fathers have died while they were incarcerated. "They have had children born and parents die. They don't get to see their families, and they have no hope of getting out, even if they are innocent. That is what the Geneva Convention is about." Wilner has no problem with the U.S. imprisoning proven terrorists. He just wants a way to establish who the bad guys are. "Can you imagine being an innocent person being swept up into this thing and having no opportunity to say to somebody 'Hey, you've got the wrong guy?'"
So far, the processing of detainees, whether for trial or release, has been slow; the Supreme Court's intervention, however, may have delivered a jolt. A U.S. military official tells TIME that at least 140 detainees--"the easiest 20%"--are scheduled for release. The processing of these men has sped up since the Supreme Court announced it would take the case, said the source, who believes the military is "waiting for a politically propitious time to release them." U.S. officials concluded that some detainees were there because they had been kidnapped by Afghan warlords and sold for the bounty the U.S. was offering for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. "Many would not have been detained under the normal rules of engagement," the source concedes. "We're dealing with some very, very dangerous people, but the pendulum is swinging too far in the wrong direction."