Obama, Guantánamo and torture. Three words guaranteed to start an argument when used individually… together they’re like a 50-megaton nuclear warhead. On January 22, 2009 President Obama vowed to close Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp “within the year”. As of May 2013, “Gitmo” is still operational, with 166 men still detained without charge or trial. Most of them have been there for over ten years.
Ironically, the sign on the gate concludes with the motto of the Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO), which is: “Honor Bound To Defend Freedom”.
Those who defend the camp say that supporters of al-Qaeda and the Taliban do not warrant the “civilised” treatment afforded to prisoners of war by the Geneva Convention. The guards and torturers at Hitler’s concentration camps were given this protection, as were the Serbians who killed and raped in the name of ethnic cleansing.
This unique US Naval base on the edge of Castro’s Cuba became a caged prison camp for suspected terrorists because President George W Bush believed it was beyond Federal Law. This meant inmates could be tortured and interrogated without interference. Several judicial battles since have concluded that he was wrong and Gitmo does indeed lie within the jurisdiction of the United States Judicial system. This was before the more right-wing (and government appointed) Supreme Court stepped in with decisions blocking releases and imposing restrictions on what evidence could be presented.
The existence of the camps at Guantánamo Bay is a travesty of everything civilised people hold dear. Every John Wayne movie and classic American adventure features strong men fighting for a “decent society”. Surely the essence of this is somewhere where human beings cannot be imprisoned without charge or trial. And certainly not tortured, sexually and religiously humiliated or force-fed.
No one is suggesting that convicted terrorists should be allowed to wander free. They should be treated like every other major criminal, and dealt with by just, lawful means. Even the most heinous murderer and terrorist remains a human being who should be treated as such. President Obama said over four years ago:
Instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantánamo became a symbol that helped al-Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantánamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.
That’s as true today as it was then: maybe more so. Human Rights campaigners Amnesty International are just one independent organisation who call for the closure of Guantánamo. Others include the European Union, United Nations and the International Red Cross.
Torture At Guantánamo
There is little doubt inmates have been tortured at Guantánamo. After all, wasn’t that the original reason for its location on foreign soil? Numerous accounts exist of beatings, water-boarding and intimidation by dogs; sleep deprivation; men being forced to soil themselves, being smeared with fake menstrual blood and sexually taunted.
Then there’s the suspected existence of Camp No – or Camp Seven, as it’s also called – a secret detention and interrogation facility at which (according to testimony from former Marine guards), the three men who supposedly “committed suicide” in 2006, actually met their end. Suicide bombings aside, it is highly unlikely that devout Moslems would take their own lives, even when treated in such abominable ways. “And do not kill yourselves, surely God is most Merciful to you.” – Qur’an, Sura 4(An-Nisa), ayat 29
In 2006, British judge Mr Justice Collins declared during a court hearing over the refusal by Tony Blair’s UK government to request the release of three British residents held at Guantánamo Bay:
“America’s idea of what is torture is not the same as ours and does not appear to coincide with that of most civilised nations.”
Of the remaining 166 detainees still held as of the end of March 2013, 86 have been cleared for release, but will not be for set free for the foreseeable future. One of the men still detained is Shawali Khan, an uneducated Afghan farmer. According to an article by Chicago human rights lawyer Len Goodman on the closeguantanamo.org website, in 2002 Khan was forced to move to Kandahar after a severe drought ruined his crops. He set up as a shopkeeper. Then came 9/11:
In November of 2002, Khan was captured by Afghan warlords and sold to the Americans. At this time, the Americans were paying bounties of about $10,000 to Afghans who turned in al-Qaeda fighters. No actual evidence or corroboration was required.
Khan was subsequently sent to Gitmo based on the word of a single informant that he was an al-Qaeda fighter. The fact that Kandahar in 2002 was considered “Taliban Central” and had no known al-Qaeda presence was overlooked or ignored by American intelligence officials who were eager to fill empty cages at Gitmo.
Khan was finally granted a habeas corpus hearing in the spring of 2010, his eighth year of captivity. The government called no witnesses but merely introduced “intelligence reports” which indicated that an unidentified Afghan informant had told an unidentified American intelligence officer that Khan was an al-Qaeda-linked insurgent.
The federal appellate courts have ruled in the Gitmo cases that the government’s evidence must be presumed accurate. To try and refute this evidence, my co-counsel and I demanded the informant’s file to determine how much cash he was paid and what kind of track record and reputation he had for truth telling. Government counsel declared that the file was “not reasonably available.” We then asked for the name of the informant so that we could conduct our own investigation. But the government refused to declassify the informant’s name, thus prohibiting us from speaking it to our Afghan investigator, who was then in Kandahar interviewing Khan’s family and neighbors, or even to our client.
There is also no doubt that many of the detained men were innocent. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as an aide to US Secretary of State Colin Powell, made an affidavit for a 2010 US court case, in which he stated that US leaders, including President George W Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, had been aware that the majority of the detainees initially sent to Guantánamo were innocent. Despite this knowledge, the men had been detained because of “political expedience”.
President Obama And Guantánamo Bay Detention Camps
So why hasn’t Obama closed the facility as he has promised on several occasions? In 2008, remember, he called Guantánamo a “sad chapter in American history”. As you might expect, it’s complicated. Several obstacles have been placed in his way by those within his Administration and beyond. A fuller list of events can be found at the Wikipedia Guantanamo Bay page.
The first main obstacle to closure back in 2009 appears to have been the legal problem that ongoing human rights abuse legal actions that were still pending. Then, when that was partly resolved, several potential alternate sites were nixed by their respective State and county officials. Under the US political climate, Obama seems keener on transferring prisoners to other facilities in the USA than implementing a closure and blanket release.
Then more bizarre elements prevented the shutting down of Gitmo. When Obama was finally able to sign off a move to a new site in Illinois, for example, the lawyer for a group of Yemeni detainees objected because the area was “too bleak”. This type of to-ing and fro-ing continued until November 2012, when the United States Senate voted 54–41 to stop detainees being transferred to facilities in the United States.
According to Red Cross spokesman Simon Schorno, the US Congress is the main obstacle to closing Guantánamo Bay prison camp. A significant factor appears to be the misinformed and yet rabid anti-Islamic stance of much of the American media.
On the closeguantanamo.org website, author and campaigner Andy Worthington lists other problems that need to be overcome:
Even though 86 of the 166 men still held were cleared for release by an inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force established by President Obama in 2009, the U.S. government has turned its back on them. Although two-thirds of the cleared prisoners are Yemenis, President Obama issued a blanket ban on releasing any Yemenis after the failed underwear bomb plot on Christmas Day 2009 (perpetrated by a Nigerian man recruited in Yemen).
On May 1st, 2013, it was reported that at least 130 of the 166 remaining Guantánamo inmates are refusing to eat and that medical personnel had been dispatched to the base to force feed them. Here (from the UK Guardian newspaper website) is a video about this: