Coalition Letter to Congress re: Detention Without Charge

June 22, 2004
Coalition Letter to Congress
Regarding Detention Without Charge

MS Word version available here.

June 22, 2004

Dear Member of Congress:

We, the undersigned organizations, write to urge you to reject any legislative proposal authorizing detention without charge or trial of individuals found in the United States. Detention without trial violates fundamental Constitutional guarantees, and cannot be made fair or reliable. Congress should reject it.

The Supreme Court will soon decide the landmark case regarding indefinite detention: Rumsfeld v. Padilla. Jose Padilla was arrested in Chicago, transferred to military custody and has been detained in military brigs for more than two years. While counsel has filed a habeas petition on Padilla’s behalf, he has not even been allowed to communicate with a court. He has not been charged, or tried, or until very recently even allowed access to counsel. The sole basis for the detention is the President’s unilateral declaration that he is an “enemy combatant.”

A major issue in the case is whether Congress implicitly authorized such indefinite military detention by authorizing military force after September 11, and, if not, whether continued military detention is lawful. If the Supreme Court decides Congress has not authorized military detentions of those picked up on American soil, some may propose a statute authorizing indefinite detention without charge and setting standards for such detentions.

Detention without charge of people seized in the United States is unconstitutional even if authorized by Congress. Congress should reject any bill that would permit such detention without charge.

Our system of checks and balances was designed to ensure that individual liberty does not rest on the good faith of government officials, and to place limits on the exercise of government authority. As James Madison made clear in explaining the separation of powers: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

Detention without charge ignores the separation of powers by eliminating the role of the courts in subjecting government accusations to the requirements of evidence and proof that trials provide. The protections for individual liberty found in the separation of powers are reinforced elsewhere in the Constitution. The 5th amendment prohibits deprivation of liberty without due process of law; the 6th amendment requires a trial by jury and the habeas clause prohibits suspension of the great Writ except in time of “invasion or rebellion”. Legislating some kind of cursory judicial oversight of executive detention would not meet these constitutional requirements.

The government already has demonstrated that it has more than ample detention authority for suspected terrorists without a new detention statute. Congress should examine appropriate safeguards for these existing detention powers, not approve the practice of indefinite detention without charge.

In addition, the need to interrogate possible suspects about terrorist activities does not justify incommunicado military detentions without charge and without a right to a lawyer. The government already has an array of options for prosecuting criminal suspects and encouraging or compelling their cooperation in an ongoing investigation. As the scandal of Abu Ghraib makes all too clear, a system of indefinite, incommunicado detention and interrogation invites abuse. If the United States does not uphold the rights of those it detains, it does grievous harm both to the cause of human rights and to the ultimate success of the United States in countering terrorism and promoting a safer and more stable world. We should not bring Abu Ghraib home.

Nor is it effective even in the short term. Experience has shown that abusing prisoners often produces intelligence that is unreliable and often results in a prisoner making up information to stop the abuse. On the other hand, access to counsel and a fair justice system not only limits the potential for abuse, it frequently results in plea agreements or other arrangements with the government that produce far more reliable information.

One of the most shameful episodes in American history was the wartime internment without trial of Japanese-Americans during World War II. While the Supreme Court upheld that internment, the American public and the Congress apologized for the internment. We should not repeat the mistake of such an unfair, error prone process.

A statute giving the President power to indefinitely detain terrorism suspects would eliminate rights that are enshrined in our Constitution and would fundamentally alter our sense of who we are as Americans. Congress should reject indefinite detention without charge.


National Organizations
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
American Civil Liberties Union
Arab American Institute
Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services
Armenian National Committee of America
Asian Law Caucus
Asian Pacific Islanders for Human Rights ‘Ohana House
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
Center for Democracy and Technology
Center for National Security Studies
Center for Social Action
Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy
Coalition for Civil Liberties
CODEPINK: Women for Peace
Council on American-Islamic Relations
Filipino Civil Rights Advocates
Filipinos for Affirmative Action
First Amendment Foundation
Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quaker)
Gun Owners of America
Japanese American Citizens League
Jewish Community Action
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services
The Multiracial Activist
Muslim Civil Rights Center
Muslim Public Affairs Council
National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Committee Against Repressive Legislation
National Council of Pakistani Americans
National Korean American Service & Education Consortium
National Lawyers Guild
Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala
Pakistani American Public Affairs Committee
PEN American Center
Progressive Jewish Alliance
Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network
South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
United Electrical Workers Union
Washington Kurdish Institute

Local Organizations
AnNur Islamic Center of Pittsburgh
Bernabei & Katz, PLLC
Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, New York City
Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, Pittsburgh
Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Durham
Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Minnesota
Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights
Connie Hogarth Center for Social Action
Downsize DC Foundation &, Inc.
Gessler Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, Ltd.
Gray Panthers, California
Greensboro Justice Fund
Hate Free Zone Washington, Seattle, WA
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area
Migration Policy and Resource Center (Occidental College, CA)
New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee
New York Immigration Coalition and Council of Pakistan Organization
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project
Progressive Christians Uniting—Los Angeles
Sacramento Coalition to Stop the Patriot Act
Sacramento Valley Branch, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

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