Restore our liberties

Rights coalition presses to close Gitmo, end torture and bring back habeas corpus

WASHINGTON — One week before our nation’s July 4 celebration, thousands of protesters wearing Statue of Liberty crowns and holding signs reading “Torture is wrong” rallied on Capitol Hill to demand that Congress restore constitutional freedoms shredded by the Bush administration.

Organizers delivered about 200,000 petition signatures to Congress demanding immediate action to “restore habeas corpus, fix the Military Commissions Act, end torture and rendition and restore our constitutional rights.”

The June 26 rally was the centerpiece in a series of actions across the U.S. calling for restoration of fundamental freedoms.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, welcomed the crowd to Upper Senate Park, hailing them as “true heroes” for traveling overnight by bus to spend a sweltering day lobbying the House and Senate.

Romero urged lawmakers to repeal the Military Commissions Act, which was passed in the waning days of the Republican-dominated Congress last year. It eliminated the basic civil protection of habeas corpus — literally meaning “show me the body,” this is the long-standing right of anyone detained to be told why he or she is being held.

Rally speakers urged passage of S 185, the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act of 2007, now before the Senate. (Readers can call toll-free to the U.S. Capitol, 800-862-5530, and ask to be put through to senators’ offices to urge their support for the bill.)

Romero recalled the “dark days” following Sept. 11, 2001, charging that the tragedy “was used by the Bush administration to advance a highly ideological agenda and seize greater powers.” In the wake of Sept. 11, Congress passed the Patriot Act, which opened the door to the administration’s warrantless spying, detentions without criminal charges or the right of legal representation, secret prisons and torture.

“But the pendulum is swinging back in our direction,” Romero said. “We demand the restoration of habeas corpus. We demand the closing of Guantanamo.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said enactment of S 185 “is the first and most important step to restoring law and justice.”

He compared suspending habeas corpus to the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “That didn’t make America safer. It put a stain on America,” he said.

When Leahy mentioned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, author of a memo for President Bush justifying torture and mass detention, a chorus of boos drowned out his words.

“I yearn for the day when we have an administration in the White House that upholds the Constitution and follows the rule of law,” Leahy said.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) blasted Vice President Dick Cheney’s role in trampling the Bill of Rights and other hard-won civil rights and liberties. Cheney “has a dismissive attitude toward laws that get in the way,” Harkin declared. “Now we learn he does not even acknowledge that he is part of the Executive Branch. What is he anyway? The Dick Cheney branch of government?”

Harkin spoke of his 1970 journey to Vietnam as a young congressional aide, when he visited the infamous U.S.-sponsored “tiger cages,” South Vietnamese jails where prisoners were tortured as they are today at Guantanamo. “There are disturbing parallels between these secret prisons,” Harkin said. Addressing Bush, Harkin shouted, “Mr. President, we have an answer: Tear down that prison!”

Renee Pecot of Harrisburg, Pa., was sitting in the shade with her hand-lettered sign, “Torture is un-American.” She told the World, “Guantanamo is just horrendous. When they suspend habeas corpus, all our rights and freedoms are in danger.” She added, “This scapegoating of immigrants is a blemish on our history. Look at Mexico with 40 percent unemployment because of our NAFTA that was supposed to create jobs. We should be ashamed that now we want to build a wall to keep the Mexican workers out.”

Greg Zensen rode the bus with 50 other protesters for more than 24 hours from St. Louis. “A lot of new authority was taken by the government, new investigative powers without subpoena or court order,” he said. “Giving this much power to a few people without any kind of judicial oversight, putting people in a hole somewhere without any legal recourse, it’s unacceptable. Look at what happened in Germany. You scapegoat somebody and ultimately it is you, standing by yourself, and nobody left to speak up for you.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told reporters that legislation to restore habeas corpus will be acted on by several House committees within the next few weeks.

Caroline Frederickson, ACLU legislative director, told the crowd, “Lobbying is so much more effective when you stand with thousands of people and you represent millions of Americans across the country.”

The ACLU partnered with Amnesty International, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and more than 50 other organizations, representing more than 4 million Americans, for the campaign to restore rights.

The rally came as the media reported new releases of declassified intelligence files that underscored for many the urgency of protecting civil liberties. The files, dating back decades, show, among other things, widespread government spying on peace groups and secret plans to assassinate foreign leaders.