To me it was thrilling to see the Brazilian federal court invoke the term "habeas corpus" in its decision yesterday ordering that the passports of the two Americans, held without charge since the horrific Sept. 29 mid-air collision with a 737 over the Amazon, be returned by Friday.
I am not unmindful of the irony for Americans. I would hope that the U.S. State Department, which has been so indifferent to the plight of the pilots, might at least pay attention to those words from the Brazilian court: Habeas corpus. They define the most fundamental principle of law in a democratic society, a common-law principle affirmed by the Magna Carta. For a state to justifiably detain someone, a body of evidence must be presented for inspection within a reasonable period of time.
The word "Guantanamo" has come up very frequently in the intense reaction to this incident. Guantanamo and all it symbolizes about illegal actions by the American government in detaining suspects, even American citizens, without regard to habeas corpus.
I should add that I have nothing but contempt for the fairly sizeable number of people I have heard from in the last two months, including some Americans, who have smugly said that the American pilots, innocent or not, got what they deserved as "payback" for Guantanamo. As I replied to some of them, this is the vile logic of death squads in Iraq and Darfur, to say that innocent people anywhere should be sacrificed as payback for injustice.
It isn't absolutely certain yet that the Federal Police or the Air Force won't try to put up obstacles to releasing the pilots on Friday, though it appears unlikely at this point. Still, Brazilian air traffic controllers have been staging protests since October over the very idea that blame might come their way, as it certainly will come, especially once the pilots are cleared. Yesterday, major airports, including Sao Paulo and Brasilia, were virtually shut down by air traffic control problems.
Nevertheless, a Brazilian court has literally laid down the law with two Latin words that need to reverberate in every free society everywhere: Habeas corpus.