WWII tale applied to Guantanamo case

Detainees' lawyer cites Boston story

By Charlie Savage, Globe Staff | August 12, 2005

WASHINGTON -- In 1944, months after Italy had surrendered to the Allies, life improved for Italian prisoners of war detained at Camp McKay in South Boston. They could not go home because World War II still raged, but the United States stopped treating them as POWs.

They moved out of the prison, got jobs at the port, and attended Mass at St. Leonard's Church in the North End.

Yesterday, the American government's handling of the Italian soldiers in Boston was put before a federal judge in the case of cleared but stranded Chinese detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Their Boston-based lawyer, Sabin Willett, cited the all-but-forgotten slice of Boston history to bolster his argument that the Bush administration should let his clients out of the prison.

''The situation of Italian prisoners of war during World War II is instructive," Willett told the court in a filing that was declassified yesterday. ''These former enemy combatants were given increased freedom of movement among the population.

''They held jobs and earned money. Particularly in US regions that had large Italian-American communities, liberty became the norm."

Willett is representing several of a group of 15 Uighurs, as their ethnic group is called, who are stranded in the prison despite being cleared for release. A military tribunal determined they had not been Taliban or Al Qaeda combatants. But the men cannot go home because the Chinese government has a history of persecuting Muslims, and other countries won't take them.

The lawyer has asked a Washington judge, James Robertson, to order the military to move the men out of the prison, saying the United States has no justification to hold them. Willett suggested either letting them live in greater freedom elsewhere on the Guantanamo Bay Navy Base, or bringing them to the United States to live among Uighur-Americans.

A Justice Department lawyer has likened the Uighurs to former POWs who were not immediately repatriated at the end of World War II. But in his new filing, Willett questioned whether that analogy holds, citing the case of the Italians in Boston.

After Italy surrendered to the Allies on Sept. 3, 1943, the former POWs moved out of the stockade into better housing on Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor. They would ride the ferry to jobs at the port, for which they were paid partially in cash and partially in room and board. On their days off, they could socialize in the city in groups of 10 to 25 with an Army sergeant chaperon.

Globe archives show that this treatment was somewhat controversial at the time. A group of American veterans complained that the government was ''pampering" former enemies.

But military authorities rebuked them, saying they were trying to abide by the Geneva Conventions in the hope that American POWs would also be treated well.

Many other Bostonians embraced their presence. On June 4, the Italians were taken to St. Leonard's Church for Mass. Afterward, crowds cheered them as they were driven through the North End. At the Hatch Shell, they stopped and sang an Italian song called ''A Bouquet of Flowers," posed for pictures, played boccie, and had a picnic, the Globe reported.

''Then as now, the North End of Boston has been home to large numbers of Italian-Americans," Willett noted. ''It appears that the spirit of welcome among the small group of Uighur expatriates in the District [of Columbia] and its environs would be no less heartfelt."

In a court filing, the Bush administration argued that the judge cannot order the Uighurs freed from the military prison because the commander-in-chief's ''power to detain a suspected enemy combatant necessarily includes the authority to wind up that detention in an orderly fashion."

The administration also said that only executive branch immigration officials, not judges, may issue a visa or parole an alien into the country.

The administration also argued that the judge should not order the military to move the Uighurs to a less restrictive facility on the base. Brigadier General Jay Hood, the commander of the Guantanamo prison, told the court that even though the tribunal cleared the Uighurs of being enemy combatants, that didn't mean ''the detainees are benign in every respect."

Hood also said that a separate wing of the prison was being retrofitted to house the cleared detainees more comfortably. There, though still fenced in, they will soon have air conditioning, a view of the sea, more food, a library of books and magazines, a stereo, a television, and a DVD player. The general also said they could make telephone calls to family.

But Willett said a few extra amenities are not enough to change the fact that his clients are imprisoned. The Uighurs, he said, were never enemies of the United States, and should be treated in the same spirit as the former Italian POWs in Boston.

Robertson has not said when he will issue a ruling in the case.

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