Guantanamo: No way out

Fearing they will never go home,more than half of the US prison’s 166 inmates are on hunger strike—“choosing death over life”. But America may have no exit strategy for this infamous jail

Written by New York Times | Guantanamo Bay (cuba) | Published: April 30, 2013 2:28:47 am


As the escalating hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay intensifies—Monday’s count was 84 of the 166 prisoners,16 being force-fed—among the nearly three dozen current and former administration,military and congressional officials,lawyers for the detainees and outside policy specialists,there is a clear consensus on what it means for the detention centre: It has become a place where no new prisoners arrive and no one can leave,and it makes little sense.

This writer was part of a group of visiting reporters at the prison recently. The hunger strike is now in its third month,with many prisoners,some of whom have been held without trial for more than 11 years,fearing that they will never go home.

The prisoners “had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed”,Gen John F Kelly,who oversees the prison as head of the US Southern Command,recently told Congress. “They were devastated when President (Barack Obama) backed off—at least (in) their perception.”

That disappointment was heightened by Obama’s decision in January 2011 to restrict the transfers of prisoners. More than half the inmates were designated three years ago for transfer to another country if security conditions could be met.

“President Obama has publicly and privately abandoned his promise to close Guantanamo,” said Carlos Warner,a lawyer who represents one of the hunger strikers being kept alive by force-feeding. “Thus many innocent men have chosen death over a life of unjust indefinite detention.”

“The situation is not sustainable,” said Kenneth Wainstein,the top national security official at the Justice Department in the Bush administration. “There are strong,principled arguments on both sides,but all of us have to acknowledge that this is far from an ideal situation and we need an exit strategy.”

Administration defenders blame Congress—especially Republicans who used Obama’s effort to close the prison as political ammunition. Still,even if Obama had sent the inmates to a domestic prison,the problems raised by the imprisonment of detainees deemed risky but untriable would persist.

William Lietzau,the top detainee policy official at the Pentagon,argued that the difficulty the administration has had in closing the prison—which it sees as a propaganda symbol for terrorists—should be considered separately from its effort to develop “principled,credible and sustainable” detention policies.

When the two become linked,he said,“it sometimes feeds the implicit narrative that having detainees at Guantanamo is somehow inherently unlawful or immoral”. “The Supreme Court has upheld wartime detention,” Lietzau said,“which is the humanitarian alternative to killing in war. We want to close Guantanamo,but not because detaining in war is immoral.”

Of the 779 prisoners the Bush administration brought to Guantanamo,166 remain,and the Obama administration considers several dozen too dangerous to release. A smaller number are designated for trial,but recent court rulings curtailing military commissions may have shrunk that number to as few as a dozen. As for the 86 prisoners designated for transfer if security conditions could be met,the administration has not used that authority.

The risk aversion comes amid claims by intelligence agencies that 16 per cent of 603 former detainees were “confirmed”—and an additional 11 per cent were “suspected”—of taking part in terrorist activities after they left Guantanamo. That would also suggest that 72 per cent are living quietly.

Still,the fact that the United States continues to imprison men long since designated for potential transfer is a source of growing criticism. Navi Pillay,the UN high commissioner for human rights,recently said: “As a first step,those who have been cleared for release must be released. This is the most flagrant breach of individual rights.”

Adding to the impression of indifference,the administration has missed by more than a year a deadline imposed by Obama to hold the first round of parole-style hearings by new ‘Periodic Review Boards’ to see whether others should be designated for transfer. Several officials said the delay stemmed from inter-agency fights over evidence obtained by torture or cruel treatment.

Keeping the prison open presents a mounting set of problems. If the United States withdraws from Afghanistan,leaving only the amorphous war against the al-Qaeda,legal authority to keep holding detainees will probably come under new challenge.

Congress included no medical exception in its ban on bringing detainees into the United States,but facilities at Guantanamo lack costly equipment that may become necessary as detainees age.

The prison is also beginning to deteriorate. Southern Command has asked for some $200 million to rebuild guard barracks; erect a new Camp Seven for high-level detainees — reporters are not allowed to see it; replace a hurricane-damaged and rusting food facility; and make other improvements.

For now,the military is sending nearly 40 additional nurses and doctors to deal with the hunger strike. Because any decision to start transferring low-level prisoners will be made in Washington,prison officials’ power is limited.

Sitting in front of what the military said were improvised weapons like mop handles discovered in the raid,the prison warden,Col John Bogdan,told reporters he had repeatedly met with detainee leaders to persuade them to comply with rules again.

“They were asking to be released from Gitmo,” he said. “I can’t do that.”

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