Pentagon prosecutors touched off a protest — and issued an apology this week — for likening the Seminole Indians in Spanish Florida to al Qaida in documents defending Guantánamo’s military commissions.
Citing precedents, prosecutors reached back into the Indian Wars in arguments at an appeals panel in Washington D.C. Specifically, they invoked an 1818 military commission convened by Gen. Andrew Jackson after U.S. forces invaded then-Spanish Florida to stop black slaves from fleeing through a porous border — then executed two British men for helping the Seminole Indians.
Navy Capt. Edward S. White also wrote this in a prosecution brief:
“Not only was the Seminole belligerency unlawful, but, much like modern-day al Qaida, the very way in which the Seminoles waged war against U.S. targets itself violate the customs and usages of war.”
A native American advocacy group complained to the military court. Defense lawyers for two Yemenis convicted of war crimes at Guantánamo countered that the behavior of Jackson, the future U.S. president now on the $20 bill, was no shining example of American military justice.
A politically ambitious Jackson, defense lawyers wrote, waged “an illegal war” that set fire to entire Indian villages “in a campaign of extermination.”
In the legal precedent, U.S. troops convicted two British traders, Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister, for helping the Seminoles and escaped slaves and sentenced them to a whipping. Jackson, a slave owner, declared the punishment too soft. He had them executed.
Florida historians are familiar with the episode.
“Arbuthnot was hanged from the yard arm of his own ship,” said University of Florida history professor Jack Davis. “Ambrister was killed by firing squad.”
At issue in the Court of Military Commissions Review is whether a newly minted post 9/11 war court crime — providing material support for terror — is legitimate for prosecution at a war crimes tribunal.
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