Editorial -- Fair treatment for a Guantanamo detainee

Thursday, November 27, 2008

THE BUSH administration acted fairly and responsibly this week in deciding to release Osama bin Laden's former driver from the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and return him to his home country of Yemen.

The driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was convicted this year by a military commission of providing material support to al-Qaeda; he was acquitted of the far more serious charges of conspiracy. Mr. Hamdan was sentenced to 66 months but was given credit by the presiding judge for the 61 months he had already spent at Guantanamo. The verdict and sentence sent a clear message that the military officers sitting in judgment believed Mr. Hamdan to be a bit player who had already paid a steep price.

Some officials argued that "enemy combatants" such as Mr. Hamdan could continue to be held after they served their sentences or even if they were acquitted. The administration wisely rejected such a move in this case. To have continued to hold the former driver would have undermined any semblance of credibility the commission had earned. It would also have been fundamentally unfair.

Instead, the administration agreed to transfer Mr. Hamdan to Yemen, where he will serve out the remaining month of his sentence in Yemeni custody. That spares incoming President Barack Obama the burden of deciding at the very outset of his administration whether, when and where to release Mr. Hamdan.

The White House has another opportunity to do the right thing, this time in the case of 17 Chinese Uighurs held at Guantanamo. The Uighurs were captured in 2002 in Pakistan after fleeing an Afghan camp that had been bombed by allied forces. The United States has acknowledged that the Uighurs were not enemy combatants and had no intention of doing battle with America or its allies.

But the men have been stuck in limbo because the United States cannot return them to China for fear that they would be persecuted. The administration has tried in vain for some time to find third countries willing to take the men.

Last month, a federal judge in Washington ordered the Uighurs released into the United States, and the Justice Department appealed, arguing that the judge overstepped his bounds and encroached into legal territory reserved for executive branch prerogatives. The government may well be right, and it appears poised to win an appeal before a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which heard the case this week. But a victory would not relieve the administration of the responsibility of doing everything in its power to ensure that the Uighurs once again enjoy freedom -- and soon.

The president must use his executive powers to allow at least some of these detainees to settle in the United States; reputable Uighur organizations in this country have already volunteered to take some in. Such a step by President Bush could nudge allied nations to open their doors, as well. As in the Hamdan case, the president would be wise to use his discretion to craft a solution that is at once an expression of strength and a demonstration that this country retains the capacity to do what is right and fair.

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