Dec 3, 2003: (Capitol Hill Blue) This is the story of a man who was taken into legal custody under false pretenses and thrown immediately into solitary confinement. He was held in a tiny cell, illuminated for 24 hours a day, which he never left except to be interrogated. Guards would hammer on the cell door every half hour around the clock, to keep him awake.
After two months, the government that seized him decided it had made a mistake, and that he wasn't guilty of the crime they had suspected he had committed. But they kept him in solitary confinement for another five months anyway.
During this time, the government fabricated a criminal charge against him, so that he could be kept in prison. A warrant was issued for his arrest (he was not "arrested" until he had spent three months in solitary confinement), but he was never informed of this, nor was he allowed to contact a lawyer.
After seven months, the government finally let him out of his tiny, constantly illuminated cell, and offered him a deal: If he would plead guilty to the criminal charge they had fabricated, they would release him from prison. He refused.
So the government kept him in prison. The government's lawyers did everything in their considerable power to keep the prisoner from getting a hearing. Indeed, they did their best to obscure that the prisoner even existed: His name didn't appear on any list of arrested or detained persons, so his family assumed he had been made to "disappear," as people do sometimes under totalitarian regimes.
Luckily for the prisoner, the fact that he had finally been arrested meant the government couldn't keep him from getting a lawyer indefinitely. An attorney was appointed to handle his case, and he started filing motions. The government's prosecutors threw every legal roadblock they could find in front of this lawyer, but he kept at it. When asked why, he replied that what his government was doing offended him as a citizen.
It took the lawyer 17 months to get a judge to rule that the government was illegally abusing his client, in violation of the most basic principles of the government's own laws. But that was hardly the end of his client's troubles. The government then decided to deport his client to his native country, even though there was a real chance the government of that country would kill his client if it could get its hands on him.
This story did not take place in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia: It is taking place today in the United States. The prisoner in question is an Algerian man named Benemar Benatta, and the story of what has been done to him over the course of the last 27 months would make Franz Kafka cringe.
Benatta's tale, as told in the Nov. 29 edition of the Washington Post, is the kind of thing that would lead to the immediate firing of those responsible, assuming that the authorities in question had any sense of shame.
Since the authorities in question include John Ashcroft it seems unlikely that any heads will roll, metaphorically speaking. As for Benemar Benatta, he is remarkably understanding: "I don't blame the United States," he says. "They've never had to deal with terrorists, and 3,000 people died."
We do have to deal with terrorists -- and some of them are employed by our legal system.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at Paul.Campos@Colorado.edu.)
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