Habeas Corpus Before (and After) Guantanamo

Tuesday, Jul. 30, 2013 12:00 pm

How long can the United States hold people captive without evidence of wrongdoing or a trial? Years after their initial internment, inmates of Guantanamo Bay, some not yet 18, continue to be held without trial or the right to question their imprisonment before a judge or jury.  Joseph Wlos ’15, a political science major, thinks this is unethical, and he has proposed a plan.

The modern conception of habeas corpus, the principle that protects against unlawful imprisonment, is approximately 700 years old and is protected by the U.S. Constitution, says Wlos. President George W. Bush suspended the guarantee when he signed the controversial Military Commissions Act of 2006, but he was not the first American president to do so. 

Last year Wlos was studying the Civil War with Sarah Purcell 92, professor of history, when he learned that Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the American Civil War. Lincoln’s decision was also controversial, and Wlos began to dig deeper into the history of the important protection.

Working with Wayne Moyer, Rosenfield Professor of Political Science, he’s spent the summer working on a Mentored Advanced Project — The Great Writ Wronged: Prisoners of War During the War on Terror and in the Future. 

Wlos followed the history and political use of habeas corpus from 17th century English parliamentary documents up through modern times. Understanding both the political issues surrounding the internment of prisoners at Guantanamo, and the importance of preventing unlawful imprisonment, he has been searching for solutions that could allow the United States to promote and protect human rights while still protecting its citizens.

His final product is a 70-page paper arguing for a dedicated court to oversee writs of habeas corpus in times of conflict.  One of the problems since 2001, says Wlos, is that there no clear process for deciding whether military or criminal courts should be overseeing a particular case.  A dedicated court would streamline the process, allowing detainees to question the legality of their imprisonment quickly. The court would determine whether the imprisonment is legal and clarify jurisdiction.

Wlos is presenting his findings in a conference this spring and submitting his paper for publication this fall. He plans on publishing the paper in Digital Grinnell afterwards if possible.