Faith groups urge U.S. restore habeas corpus for noncitizen detainees

WASHINGTON – A host of Catholic organizations have joined similar Protestant, Jewish and Muslim groups in a coalition to urge a reversal of one part of last year’s Military Commissions Act that eliminates habeas corpus for noncitizens held in custody.

The practice, they said at a June 26 press conference, has led to torture and other forms of cruel and inhumane punishment since the federal government would not be required to bring the detainee into a courtroom to prove that he or she must continue to be held prisoner.

“Torture in any form devalues the dignity of every human person,” said retired Bishop Walter F. Sullivan of Richmond, Va., at the press conference. Bishop Sullivan had for 12 years been the bishop-president of Pax Christi USA, the U.S. arm of the international Catholic peace movement.

Bishop Sullivan noted that twice last year different U.S. bishops said that torture is “morally intolerable.”

The first instance was in June 2006, when Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, joined 26 other religious leaders in a statement, “Torture Is a Moral Issue,” published as an advertisement in The New York Times.

“Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear,” the advertisement said in part. “Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.”

The other instance was last November, when Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the U.S. bishops, joined with other faith leaders in condemning torture. The November statement used the same language as its June predecessor, and added: “Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now – without exceptions.”

Both statements were organized by the National Religious Coalition Against Torture, which also sponsored the press conference.

The coalition was one of four principal sponsors of a rally in a park north of the Capitol; others were the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International. Together, they were urging passage of the Restoring the Constitution Act, introduced in February in the Senate by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.; a similar bill was introduced in the House in March by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

“It’s a sad state of affairs that we have to have a piece of legislation titled the Restoring the Constitution Act,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a tent rally preceding the park rally.
The bill, if passed, would:

– Restore the right of habeas corpus and due process so noncitizen detainees could no longer be held indefinitely without charge or trial as currently permitted.

– Reassert adherence to the Geneva Conventions, assuring humane treatment for all prisoners, military and civilian.

– Ban evidence obtained through torture to be used in court, as well as hearsay testimony and testimony obtained through “coercion.”

– Clarify the definition of “enemy combatant” and no longer give the president the power to decide who is in that category.

At the press conference Rabbi Gerry Serotta, chairman of the board of Rabbis for Human Rights, said, “We’re starting today with habeas corpus” – Latin for “bring the body.” He said he believed that lawmakers will be persuaded by the breadth of the religious voices allied on the subject.
“When it comes to the larger questions, like torture, the National Religious Coalition Against Torture knows it’s in the business for the long haul,” he said.

“Restoring habeas corpus is the first and most important step,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at the park rally. “It’s hard to defend the higher ground by taking the low road.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, recalled when, as a congressional staffer 37 years ago, he helped expose the presence of “tiger cages” on an island off the coast of Vietnam in which Vietnam War prisoners had been held.

Harkin compared the tiger cages to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “Guantanamo is synonymous with abuse and lawlessness. … We can defeat our enemies without becoming like them,” said Harkin, who is the sponsor of a bill to shut down Guantanamo.

Other Catholic members of the National Religious Coalition Against Torture include Pax Christi USA, the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, the U.S. Catholic Mission Association, and dozens of religious orders and parishes.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.