"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Friday, October 08, 2010

Do we still have a right not to have confessions beaten out of us?

Seriously, because if we don't have right to have a non-police witness of some kind present at our interrogation by the police, then in practice the cops pretty much have carte blanche to do whatever they want to people. Without a right to a lawyer during interrogation, who knows how many people will "fall down the stairs" while in custody.
I just moved back to Canada from Japan and while I love the Japanese culture and people and all my friends there, civil liberties in Japan are something of a bad joke. The court system has a conviction rate of nearly 100% for a couple of reasons. First, many criminals turn themselves in due to the shame-based nature of the social contract in Japanese culture. Second, there is no real presumption of innocence in the legal system. Third, the police can arrest and hold people without charge for days and the people being held have no right to a lawyer during interrogation.
In theory, this allows the police to avoid those cases where some crook gets off on a "technicality" because he wasn't read his rights or because he lawyered up and was told to act in his own best interest instead of the best interest of the state. In practice it means that when a crime is committed and the culprit isn't giftwrapped and waiting for them, the police in Japan can pick up anyone they consider undesirable, hold them incommunicado for a couple of days pending charges and give them the phone-book-and-rubber-hose treatment until they decide to confess. Usually, it doesn't even take any physical abuse. Three or four days without sleep, a complete ignorance of the rules the game is being played by and constant browbeating is usually enough to get the average homeless person or teen slacker to confess to whatever petty crime the police want them to in Japan. For more serious cases, the police can hold someone for a few weeks. After a couple of weeks, most people would be willing to confess to the McKinley assasination. And any accusations of mistreatment invariably boil down to "who are you going to believe - us, the sworn officers of the law who protect you while you sleep, or this whining criminal scumbag?"
The supreme court ruling sends us down the path to exactly that reality.


Like it or not, Capt. Semrau must be punished

I'm not sure I'm the guy to take this on and as usual these days I'm busy juggling flaming chainsaws on the job search and family fronts (ain't transPacific relocation a hoot!), but I have to say I'm getting a bit tired of all the letters to the editor I'm seeing about how the high command and "the system" has failed Capt. Semrau and how he deserves a medal.
I don't for a moment think the guy is some kind of bloodthirsty scofflaw, but rules are rules and exist for a very good reason. Do we want soldiers on the battlefield deciding which among the wounded may or may not be successfully treated and simply shooting the ones they think won't make it at their own discretion? Would those who want to pin a medal on Capt. Semrau like to see Canadian soldiers treated by such a standard?
I think the military judge showed the wisdom of Solomon and exercised considerable leniency in dismissing the captain from the military without giving him a dishonorable discharge or a prison sentence. He may well have acted from the highest motives - or the lowest, there really isn't any way of reading his mind - but he acted in clear violation of all the rules of the Canadian Forces and the Geneva Convention, so obviously - at the very least - he had to be punished as an example.
Semrau has been portrayed as an exemplary soldier and commander and he probably was until he stepped over this important line. His men defended his actions and his defence has been that what he did was a mercy killing.
That may be, but it was still an unlawful killing. What he did was withhold medical treatment from a wounded prisoner and then murder that prisoner. Whatever the motive, whether he acted out of brazen cruelty, a secret desire for revenge, or (most likely) compassion for someone in pain he didn't think would survive, what he did was still a war crime and has to be treated as such.  His motives and intentions, noble though they may be, don't really matter in the end. Whether international law needs to be revisited to allow for such actions is an entirely separate minefield and one I don't suggest we should enter.
Semrau must be punished not only for his concrete actions, but for what they represent - a commissioned officer willfully and knowingly violating the rules of war, the regulations of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Geneva Convention. Such conduct, no matter the reason, must carry consequences, otherwise military discipline is seriously undermined. Let us not forget that while the Canadian military defends our democracy and all those other egalitarian principles we hold dear, it is not and cannot be a democracy itself. Structure, chain-of-command and top-down leadership are all essential to the military functioning properly. Soldiers must follow orders and regulations or they are nothing more than a well-armed mob. I'm sorry that Semrau has sacrificed his military career, but his actions cannot be ignored - he is fortunate not to be in prison.