Last week, the members of Amnesty International's local chapter, Group 317, sat down at a North-side Indianapolis church for their monthly meeting. The agenda included planning action they could take to put pressure on a rogue country engaged in a frightening assault on human rights:
- Ominously, this government is making plans for a courtroom and an execution chamber at the military base where these prisoners are being held. "We're getting ready so we won't be starting from scratch," says the Army general overseeing the plans.
- After a recent attack on this country, about 1,200 non-citizens, almost all ethnic minorities, were rounded up and jailed. A report released earlier this month by an independent inspector of the country's own government shows that, in the panicky days after the attack, the country's officials decided to ignore previous policies to protect the rights of those immigrants. Instead, the officials detained the immigrants for an average of nearly three months, during which time many of the immigrants were abused, not advised of the charges against them and denied access to a lawyer. None of those 762 accounted for were ever charged with being a terrorist.
- There is substantial evidence that this country, despite its own constitutional safeguards and signing numerous international treaties against the use of torture, has helped arrest and hold thousands of alleged enemies in countries known to use torture on prisoners.
This type of abuse has been the subject of Amnesty International attention for years, as these are favorite techniques of tinhorn dictators and fundamentalist regimes across the globe. But what is different this time is that the activists are not talking about some iron curtain monolith or a banana republic.
The military base is Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the report is by Glenn A. Fine, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Justice. The detainees have been alleged to be - but often turn out not to be - part of Afghanistan's fallen Taliban regime or connected somehow to the al Qaeda terror network. All of these actions took place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
The rogue country that has raised the concern of human rights activists is our own United States of America.
"We have taken a giant step backward on human rights since Sept. 11," says Michael Hartt, coordinator of the local Amnesty chapter. "There is no doubt the United States can no longer legitimately claim a leadership position on human rights."
It's not just Amnesty International sounding the alarm. Federal judges, the American Bar Association, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, the European Parliament and several allies of the United States have condemned the Bush Administration's actions. In a report entitled, accurately enough, "Presumption of Guilt," Human Rights Watch wrote, "The U.S. government has failed to hold high the fundamental principles on which the nation is premised - the very values President Bush declared were under attack."
In the wake of Sept. 11, we're justified in being scared. And of course, we have the right to defend ourselves and prevent future attacks. But when our fear causes us to start trampling over the heritage of civil liberties that makes this country special, the cliché becomes true: The terrorists really have won.
"I used to take great pride in being a citizen of a country that respected human rights so consistently," Hartt says. "We had such great standing on human rights with the rest of the world before Sept. 11.
"I fear we have squandered that."
For more information about the local Amnesty International group, contact 251-1703, or . Meetings are at 7 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month at Broad Ripple United Methodist Church.
Fran Quigley is a contributing editor to NUVO, where this article originally appeared - ...