Matt Diaz

Lt. Cmdr. Matt Diaz

On May 18, Lieutenant Commander Matthew Diaz was sentenced to six months in a Navel brig and removal from the Navy for courageously upholding the constitution of the United States. Apparently this is a very serious crime in America today. Lt. Cmdr. Diaz is actually counting himself lucky, as the 41-year-old officer with 19-years of service to the U.S. Navy faced a possible 14 years in prison.

Diaz was a military attorney assigned to investigate abuses of prisoners at Guantánamo, the legal black hole dungeon that operates outside of domestic and international law according to the Bush administration. Taking this assignment seriously not only some-what predictably ended his military career; it might have landed himself in prison until the year 2021.

On orders from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. had refused to release the names of the prisoners that were being held at Guantánamo. The U.S. continued to stonewall all requests for this information even after a federal court ruled that the names must be turned over.

Diaz took action to uphold the law, knowing the risks involved. Concerned about this abuse of human rights, Diaz sent a Valentine’s Day card to the Center for Constitutional Rights in February 2005. The year earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in support of C.C.R.’s right to represent these prisoners. Included with Diaz’s card, printed in very small type, was a list of about 550 names of prisoners held at Guantánamo.

“My oath as a commissioned officer is to the Constitution of the United States,’’ Diaz told the Dallas Morning News. “I’m not a criminal. I had observed the stonewalling, the obstacles we continued to place in the way of the attorneys,’’ Diaz told the media before his sentencing. “I knew my time was limited. … I had to do something.’’

What is illegal, he said, is the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terror. He accused officials of violating international law, such as the Geneva Conventions on the humane treatment of war prisoners, and the Constitution’s guarantee of due process.

“I felt it was the right decision, the moral decision, the decision that was required by international law,” Diaz said. “No matter how the conflict was identified, we were to treat them in accordance with Geneva, and it just wasn’t being done.”

C.C.R.’s website agrees: “Since its opening Guantánamo was clearly illegal. Now, in 2007, Guantánamo has become an intelligence and national security failure, a moral stain on our nation, and a corrupt symbol that cannot continue.”

Post-trial media reports claim Diaz expressed regret for his actions during his court martial; however, it’s hard to blame him for doing so when faced with 14-years imprisonment. Diaz noted that he was “very happy” with the verdict.

Diaz is not the first member of the U.S. military legal system to face trouble for challenging conditions at Guantánamo. He recalled two prosecutors who “objected to the way the system was set up to guarantee a conviction. I don’t believe they lasted long … they didn’t make it to the first hearings,” Diaz told the Dallas Morning News.

The Bush administration has characterized the Guantánamo population as “the worst of the worst.” Based on what he has seen there, that is one of “two misstatements, or false statements, that occurred about Guantánamo,” Diaz said. “The other statement was ‘We do not torture.’ ”

International law attorney Scott Horton, writing for Harpers, points out, “A federal court subsequently ruled that the Navy’s decision to withhold the names was unlawful, and issued an order compelling their disclosure–so the Pentagon’s withholding of the names, and not Diaz’s action, was unlawful. In the words of one of the greatest Americans of the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau, ‘Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.’”