Secret trials and indefinite detentions: they're not just for totalitarian regimes anymore

Two cases relevant to the freedom of the press and the openness of the American legal system are heading to the Supreme Court.

The White House is attempting to keep its arguments secret in a case concerning an Algerian waiter arrested in Florida for violating a student visa. The waiter, Mohammed Kamel Bellahouel, apparently served two of the 9/11 hijackers several weeks before the attacks.
Justices sometimes are asked to keep parts of cases private because of information sensitive for national security or other reasons, but it's unusual for an entire filing to be kept secret.

Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she was disappointed by the government's request.

"The idea that there is nothing that could be filed publicly is really ridiculous," she said. "It just emphasizes our point that we're living in frightening times. People can be arrested, thrown in jail and have secret court proceedings, and we know absolutely nothing about it."
If it had been up to the government, the whole trial would still be secret. A clerical mistake and now Bellahouel's Supreme Court petition are the only reasons the public knows anything at all about this court case and the issues it raises.

Bellahouel is only one of over 1,000 people (largely, if not entirely, Muslims and/or people of Middle Eastern ethnicities) secretly rounded up and detained after 9/11. The Bush administration still refuses to release any information at all about these detentions.

In the other case, the Justice Department is asking the Supremes to overturn a lower court ruling that the president does not have the authority to detain any US citizen he wants for as long as he wants with no legal protections.

This is the Jose Padilla case. Padilla, a US citizen arrested in the US, has been locked up 19 months without charge and without any of the rights he should be getting as a US citizen. The lower court ruled that he be released within 30 days.

Nineteen months is more than enough time for the government to have built and brought a case against Padilla - if it had anything at all, that is. American justice is being seriously compromised by these secret detentions, secret trials, secret arguments, secret decisions, and secret admissions of evidence. If the Bush administration has anything on these people, then bring it to the courts in a timely manner and let them decide in open proceedings. The public, in any event, should know what is being done in their name by their so-called elected representatives and public servants. But it seems more and more that the Bush administration is keeping people in jail for indefinite periods simply because it can get away with it, which is not something one expects in an open society.

The press, thankfully, is beginning to take an interest in the matter of secret trials. No doubt to provide some fresh material which they can muck up in print - but better than not caring at all or "supporting" the government, which has been the media's major tendency since the whole "war on terror" began.

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