In Guantanamo, fine words are no substitute for freedom

When President Obama delivered a major speech on America’s drone program and the ongoing existence of the Guantanamo prison, the majority of those most affected by the latter – the prisoners themselves – were, ironically, unable to hear his speech.

Until six weeks ago, the majority of prisoners were spending
most of their time communally, in Camp Six of the prison, where
they were able to watch TV and would have seen President Obama’s
speech. Six weeks ago, however, after an early morning raid, the
majority of the prisoners were moved to solitary cells, where they
have remained ever since – as punishment for embarking on a
prison-wide hunger strike, now in its fourth month.

Yesterday, Navy Captain Robert Durand, a spokesman for the
Guantánamo prison, told Reuters that the prisoners “follow all
coverage of Guantánamo closely,
” although he conceded that only
about two dozen had unrestricted access to television in
communal settings.

The irony is lost on the military – and appears to be lost on
the Obama administration too. The men’s decision not to eat – and
to risk starving themselves to death – was initially prompted by
guards manhandling the prisoners’ copies of the Qur’an, but it soon
tapped into a deeper despair about their indefinite detention.

President Obama promised to close Guantánamo within a year when
he took office in January 2009, but met opposition from Congress,
which prevented him from closing the prison by bringing prisoners
to a facility on the US mainland, and also prevented him from
bringing any of the men to the US to face trials.

Throughout 2009, an inter-agency task force appointed by the
President reviewed all the prisoners’ cases, and recommended that,
of the 166 men still held, 86 should be released. However, in
January 2010, following a failed bomb plot, hatched in Yemen, to
blow up a plane bound for Detroit, the President himself imposed a
ban on releasing any cleared Yemenis, even though 56 of the 86
prisoners cleared for release are Yemenis.

In the last two years, Congress has imposed further
restrictions, in successive versions of the National Defense
Authorization Act (NDAA), preventing the release of prisoners if
there is a single claim that anyone previously transferred to their
home country has “subsequently engaged in any terrorist
activity
,” and also preventing the release of prisoners to any
other country unless the Secretary of Defense issues a certificate
to ensure that any freed prisoner “cannot engage or re-engage in
any terrorist activity.
” 

The ban imposed by President Obama unjustly condemned the
Yemenis to indefinite detention on the basis of their nationality
alone, while the restrictions imposed by Congress partly echoed
that, whilst also making the unreasonable demand that no one should
be freed from a prison if there was a possibility that they might
one day engage in acts of terrorism against their former
jailers.

US President Barack Obama listens as a protester shouts during a speech about his administration's drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013 (AFP Photo / Saul Loeb)

To add insult to injury, judges in the court of appeals in
Washington D.C., a deeply conservative court charged with reviewing
the men’s hard-won habeas corpus petitions, which were granted by
the Supreme Court in 2008, were upset that, between 2008 and 2010,
dozens of prisoners had their habeas corpus petitions granted by
the lower courts, leading to their release. The court rewrote the
rules, insisting that any information presented as evidence by the
government should be treated as accurate unless it could be proved
otherwise. Since then no habeas petitions have been granted, and,
despite appeals from the prisoners, the Supreme Court has refused
to get involved.

Abandoned by all three branches of the US government, the
prisoners’ hunger strike was a desperate way of trying to get the
world to notice them and to remember them, and it worked. In the
last few months, the world’s media has woken up to the horrors of
Guantánamo, and the President has been bombarded with criticism –
from senior lawmakers, including Sen. Carl Levin, the chair of the
Senate Armed Services Committee and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the
chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as from the
United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and
the European Parliament. Critical editorials have graced the pages
of the New York Times and the Washington Post, op-eds written by
prisoners have appeared in the New York Times and the Observer, and
nearly a million people have signed petitions calling for the
release of prisoners and the closure of the prison.

On Thursday President Obama delivered a series of promises in
response to the criticism directed at him. These appear to show the
way forward – and to bring hope to the men at Guantánamo for the
first time since 2009 – but they will need close monitoring, and
relentless pressure, to make sure they lead to meaningful
action.

Firstly, the President said, “I am appointing a new, senior
envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole
responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to
third countries.

Secondly, he said, “I am lifting the moratorium on detainee
transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case
basis.”

Thirdly, he said, “To the greatest extent possible, we will
transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other
countries.”

Reuters / Bob Strong

On the first point, it is disappointing that the President has
not decided to appoint an official within the White House to deal
with Guantánamo, and it is also disappointing that the individual
is only to be tasked with “the transfer of detainees to third
countries
” rather than the closure of the prison. However, it
is progress. In January, it was revealed that the previous envoy,
Daniel Fried, had been reassigned, and that no one had been
appointed to take his place.

What needs to happen now is for this individual to be named as
swiftly as possible, and for he or she to begin to transfer the 30
cleared prisoners who are not Yemenis. If Congress remains
obstructive, the President and the Secretary of Defense must use a
waiver provision that exists in the NDAA, which allows them to
bypass Congress if they regard it as being “in the national
security interests of the United States.”

On the second point, lifting the ban on releasing Yemenis is
crucial, but there now needs to be immediate action to facilitate
the men’s release. Again, the waiver will be needed if Congress
refuses to cooperate, but otherwise there should be no obstacles to
the successful release of the 56 men. Prior to President Obama’s
speech, current and former administration officials told the Wall
Street Journal that the transfers to Yemen “would begin slowly,
starting with two or three detainees, to ensure Yemen can keep
track of the detainees and prevent them from joining militant
groups.”
The beginning of this process, the official said,
“could still be months away.”

The Wall Street Journal also noted that recent steps taken by
the Yemeni government “may make it easier for the Pentagon to
sign the waiver,
” adding, “President Abed Rabbo Mansour
Hadi’s government, which has increased counter-terrorism
cooperation with the US, has pledged to monitor the detainees
closely and put them through an intensive rehabilitation
program.”

Reuters / Bob Strong

The Wall Street Journal also noted that “US and Yemeni
officials have held negotiations in recent weeks about restarting
the transfers, including promising to share information about
former detainees. The Yemeni government has said multiple
ministries will monitor the ex-detainees to guard against
activities that are potentially threatening to the US and to ensure
they receive counselling, job training and other aid to help their
reintegration into society.

On the third point, plans to free the 30 non-Yemeni prisoners
cleared for release need to begin immediately, involving the
President’s new envoy and, if necessary, the waiver mentioned
above. The first to be released should be Shaker Aamer, the last
British resident in the prison, but there are also five Tunisians,
a Saudi, four Afghans and others whose release should not be a
complicated matter.

The cases of others – including the last three Uighurs (Muslims
from China’s Xinjiang province), four Syrians, the last Tajik and
the last Palestinian – are more complicated, because it is unsafe
for them to be repatriated, and new homes need to be found for
them. This is also the case with most, if not all of the last five
Algerians. The plight of these men is complicated by the fact that
the US refuses to resettle any of these men, but it is anticipated
that third countries can be found if the Obama administration
provides full backing to the President ‘s new envoy.

There is more that still needs doing, of course. The 80 other
prisoners in Guantánamo also need justice, and will not be
reassured that the President stated in his speech, “Where
appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and
military justice system,
” and specifically referred to some of
the 80 men as those “who we know have participated in dangerous
plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted – for example
because the evidence against them has been compromised or is
inadmissible in a court of law
.”

46 of the remaining 80 men were consigned to indefinite
detention without charge or trial in an executive order issued by
the President two years ago, on the basis of the “compromised”
evidence mentioned by the President. At the time, these men were
promised periodic reviews of their cases, but those have not yet
taken place. These need to be initiated, and they need to allow
objective analysis of that “compromised” evidence – because that
will reveal that much of it is worthless, consisting of false
statements made by prisoners subjected to torture or other abuse,
or who were bribed with food or the promise of additional “comfort
items.”

For the others, recommended for trial by the task force, only
seven currently face charges in the much-criticized military
commissions at Guantánamo, and most of the men in this category
should also receive objective reviews of their cases. This is
particularly important because judges recently ruled that most of
the charges relied upon by the government – providing material
support for terrorism, and conspiracy – are not war crimes, and
threw out two of the only convictions secured in the military
commissions’ stumbling history.

Mostly, however, as outlined above, the men at Guantánamo need
to see meaningful progress from the President who promised “hope
and change” back in 2008, and then failed to deliver it – and for
86 of these men, that means, as soon as possible, that they should
be given their freedom, and not just subjected to the fine words
that President Obama is so good at delivering, as a substitute for
action. 

Andy Worthington for
RT

Andy Worthington is a freelance
investigative journalist, author and filmmaker, who has been
researching and writing about Guantánamo since 2006. He is also the
co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign. See his website
here.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

This article originally appeared on: RT