Gitmo: Where Obama failed
SHAKER Aamer, a British citizen of Arab origin, released on Friday can be taken as a symbol for everything that is wrong with Guantanamo, the US detention facility in Cuba. Aamer was never charged with any crime though he had to spend nearly a decade and a half in US custody. Like some others, he was cleared for release from the prison in both 2007 and 2009. Aamer was among the innocent Arabs who were captured by Afghan bounty hunters to be handed over to Americans in return for lucrative cash awards. He spent two months at the prison facility at Bagram Airforce Base, before being transported to Guantanamo.
Aamer was tortured, that too in the presence of the British intelligence service MI5. He was subject to sleep deprivation for 11 days, had cold water poured over him and was kept standing for 20 hours a day. Just as Aamer’s family and friends celebrate his return home, we should not forget there are over 100 persons still languishing in the off-shore detention facility.
Among them are those who have been cleared for transfer but are still there because no country is willing to take them. US lawmakers argue that no place in the US can offer the same security as Guantanamo, though American prisons hold many dangerous terrorists who were convicted in federal court. There are detainees who can be prosecuted including “the worst of the worst.” Some are known informally as “forever prisoners,” held in legal limbo, neither charged with a crime nor cleared for release. Some have been at Guantánamo since it opened in 2002.
Whatever the category, all are subject to torture including constant beatings and humiliations by prison guards, interrogators, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, shackling in stress positions, and threats to sexually assault a detainee’s family members.
The Gitmo detention center was opened by President George W. Bush in the panicky months after the Sept. 11 attacks. His successor Barack Obama made the closing of Guantánamo a central promise of his campaign for the White House. But it still remains open.
The White House or Obama’s supporters would have us believe that stubborn Congressional resistance is what blocks the closure. But Obama is not entirely blameless. The president, critics and human rights activists point out, should have vetoed defense authorization bills that limited his ability to transfer the inmates, but he signed them.
Many detainees cleared for release have filed petitions for habeas corpus, demanding that the government explain why it is still holding them. In every case, the Justice Department has automatically opposed the petition. If Obama ordered the department to stop doing that, a federal judge could immediately release the detainees to a willing country.
He could also have asked the government team that reviews inmates for release to expedite their work. Obama, we are told, is still committed to closing the Guantanamo and is willing “to use all of the elements of his authority” to make progress on the issue. But there is very little time (he will leave office in January 2017) and no plan that the Congress will accept. The question is whether he can do now what he failed to do at a time when his popularity was at its peak and Americans were willing to shed all vestiges of a discredited Bush era. A partisan Republican Congress is never going to give the outgoing Democratic president the satisfaction of fulfilling one of his campaign promises. And the next president, Republican or Democrat, will never think of courting the displeasure of the Congress by suggesting the closure of Gitmo so early in his or her tenure as president. This means that Obama has played into the hands of people like former Vice President Richard Cheney who thinks Guantanamo should be kept open until “the end of the war on terror” whenever it may be.