United States

A promise breached

Print edition : May 31, 2013

This December 4, 2006, photograph shows a detainee shielding his face as he peers out through the "bean hole" which is used to pass food and other items into the cell, at the Camp Delta detention centre, Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. holds 166 prisoners at Guantanamo, most of them without charges. Photo: Brennan Linsley/AP

In this April 18, 2013, video frame grab reviewed by the U.S. military, soldiers walk past detainees’ cells during early morning prayer. One hundred of the 166 inmates are on hunger strike. Photo: Suzette Laboy/AP

This June 27, 2006, photograph shows U.S. soldiers at Guantanamo Bay. Photo: Brennan Linsley/AP

George W. Bush. His administration established the high-security prison in Guantanamo Bay. Photo: MIKE STONE/REUTERS

President Obama’s National Defence Authorisation Act abandons the pledge to close down Guantanamo. Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

John F. Kelly, head of Southern Command. He said the prisoners expected Obama to free them. Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP

Activists in New York dressed as prisoners demand the closure of the prison. Photo: EDUARDO MUNOZ/REUTERS

Barack Obama blames U.S. lawmakers for blocking his moves to close down the Guantanamo Bay prison, but refuses to use his executive powers to overrule them lest he should lose political capital.

A MAJOR election pledge of Barack Obama when he sought the 2008 presidential nomination was to close down the high-security military prison at the United States’ military base in Guantanamo Bay. He had said that the incarceration of “foreign enemy combatants” was against the norms of international law. He had in fact signed an order in 2009 for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison. But facing strong criticism from the U.S. Congress, he conveniently gave up on his commitment. American public opinion, not the most knowledgeable at the best of times, is not favourable to the idea of some of the prisoners being relocated in U.S. prisons on the mainland. Prominent politicians, the majority of them Republicans, are of the opinion that the prisoners are too dangerous to be held in American prisons and should continue to be treated as “enemy combatants” and should not be given the benefit of civilian trials.

The Guantanamo military base, located on the south-eastern tip of Cuba, currently holds 166 individuals from various countries on suspicions of being terrorists. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, at least 800 people, including 11 children, were incarcerated in the prison for many years before being freed. While the George W. Bush administration released 532 inmates, the Obama administration has released only 72 so far. The rest, from 22 different countries, have been languishing in the prison, without any charges being framed against them, for the last 11 years. Human rights groups have described Guantanamo as a “legal black hole” from which there is little hope of return. Obama administration officials have admitted that 92 per cent of those still in the prison were not Al Qaeda operatives.

Guantanamo itself is illegally occupied by the U.S. The land was ceded by a quisling Cuban government under the 1903 Cuban-American Treaty. Since the 1959 revolution, Cuba has been forcefully demanding back its territory. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez reiterated this demand in a speech at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. He pointed out that the prisoners in Guantanamo had been held for more than 10 years “without any guarantees, without being tried by a court or the right to legal defence”.

The Bush administration established the high-security prison at the naval base in Guantanamo after the terror strikes of September 11, 2001. The prison was set up specifically to hold terrorists and those having suspected links with Al Qaeda and groups such as the Taliban. The prisoners were denied the rights accorded by the American military to other enemy combatants. President Obama has not been able to fulfil his pledge of closing down the prison even after being re-elected in 2012.

The inhuman conditions under which the prisoners from various countries are being held are well documented. Some prisoners, unable to bear the torture and daily humiliation, have committed suicide. Obama has blamed U.S. lawmakers for not letting him fulfil his commitment, but he also let the issue be slowly confined to the back burner.

He had blocked the transfer of 56 Yemeni detainees in 2009 from Guantanamo to their homeland despite the American military establishment giving the go-ahead. The Obama administration had claimed that the heightened activity of the Al Qaeda franchise in Yemen had prompted a rethink on the subject.

There are many senior people in the American security establishment who had expected the President to fulfil his commitment to close down the prison. John F. Kelly, Marine General and the Commander of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), said that the prisoners had thought that they would be released after the re-election of Obama to the presidency but now they were “devastated”.

Hunger strike and torture

It was only the indefinite hunger strike by the majority of the prisoners in Guantanamo, which has been going on for more than three months, that prompted the President to make another appeal to Congress to close down the prison. The strikes started after the prisoners complained of being routinely mistreated and subjected to violence by the prison guards. The flashpoint was the alleged confiscation of and disrespect to the copies of the Quran that had been provided to the prisoners. The prison authorities claim that the copies of the holy book were being used to smuggle in the chemicals that were used in attempted suicides.

Carlos Warner, an American lawyer for a Guantanamo inmate from Kuwait, told CNN that the conditions were already dire in the prison when the authorities “lit the fuel on fire by the oppressive search of the men and taking away things that they had grown accustomed for years…. This is about frustration, this is about the Obama administration ignoring Guantanamo in every way, shape and form.” One hundred of the 166 inmates are now on hunger strike. Five of them are in hospital in a critical condition. Most of them have suffered dramatic weight loss. Others are being force-fed through nasal pipes to keep them alive.

The UNHRC has issued a statement saying that feeding hunger strikers against their will was a breach of international law. “If it’s perceived as torture or inhuman treatment—and it’s the case, it’s painful—then it is prohibited by international law,” the spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner said in Geneva. The World Medical Association (WMA), which has 102 members, including the United States, had ruled way back in 1991 that forcible feeding is “never ethically acceptable”. The WMA had also said that the force-feeding of some detainees “in order to intimidate or coerce other hunger strikers to stop fasting”, was equally unacceptable.

In a recent speech, President Obama stressed the importance of closing down the prison. “It is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient; it hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens our cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists.” Despite the rhetoric, Obama has so far not used his executive power to free the majority of the prisoners or at least transfer them back to their countries. Ninety captives were cleared for release three years ago but they continue to languish in Guantanamo mainly because of U.S. Congressional restrictions and the refusal of some Gulf monarchies to accept their citizens.

The President’s role

Susan Hu, a legal fellow at the U.S.-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, told the media that it was a “misconception” that the U.S. Congress alone was the obstacle for the release of the prisoners in Guantanamo, “when in fact President Obama needs to be taken to task for not using his (executive) power”. She pointed out that the majority of the prisoners that were currently lodged in the prison had already been cleared for release. “I think that the only reason they have not been released is because President Obama is not willing to risk his political capital to move towards closing Guantanamo,” she said. In 2005, Julia Traver, a lawyer from the same organisation, described the “force-feeding” being practised in Guantanamo, after talking with some of the inmates. “Detainees were verbally abused and insulted and were restrained from head to toe. They had shackles and other restraints on their arms, legs, waist, chest, knees and head…. With these restraints in place, they were given intravenous medications,” she said.

In January this year, Obama signed the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) which, according to civil rights activists, is as good as virtually abandoning the pledge to close down Guantanamo. The Bill barred the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the mainland even for the purpose of a trial in a federal court. The Act also requires the U.S. Defence Secretary to comply with very difficult conditions under which a detainee can be repatriated to his home country. The Defence Secretary will have to get clearance from all the security agencies involved in counterterrorism for the mere transfer of the prisoners to their native lands. Obama had closed the U.S. State Department Office that was overseeing the resettlement of the detainees. The White House position that was created to supervise the closing down of the Guantanamo prison has also been lying vacant for some time now.

Meanwhile, the prisoners, most of them incarcerated on the mere suspicion of having terrorist links, have refused to end their hunger strike. Lawyers representing them have said that many of them have lost up to 14 kilograms in weight and are subsisting only on water.

In the second week of April, an American think tank, the Constitution Project, released a 600-page report detailing decades of war crimes committed by the U.S. The report was compiled by an 11-member “Task Force on Detainee Treatment” which interviewed many former detainees, U.S. security officials and politicians from many countries, including the U.S. It covers the treatment of detainees during the Bill Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. “The events examined in this report are unprecedented in U.S. history” and “there is little doubt that U.S. personnel committed brutal acts against captives”, the introduction to the report stated.

The introductory statement said that it was after September 11, 2001, that the U.S. President and his top security advisers became directly involved in deciding on “the wisdom, propriety, and legality of inflicting pain on some detainees in our custody”. The report observed that despite this “extraordinary aspect, the Obama administration declined as a matter of policy” to set up a commission of inquiry into the numerous cases of torture committed during the Bush administration’s “war on terror”. It concluded that the U.S. government “indisputably” engaged in torture which was approved by the “nation’s highest officials”.

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