New York, United States – President Barack Obama’s window to make good on his promise to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay is quickly closing.
US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has publically focused attention on alternative sites on US soil to house prisoners who the administration says cannot be released and must be detained “forever“.
That sideshow is a distraction, many have argued, and the president should instead be working on releasing the men who have long been cleared for transfer.
On Tuesday, Saudi citizen Abdul Shalabi was sent home. He had been hunger-striking for 10 years of his more than 13 years held at the US naval prison in Cuba.
Moroccan Younous Chekkouri was repatriated last week, though it is unclear if he’s a free man back home.
|Letters from Guantanamo Bay|
But remaining are 52 men approved for transfer, and there are countries willing to except them. All but a handful of those 52 prisoners have been cleared since 2009.
Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantanamo, was cleared then and previously in 2007 by the George W Bush administration.
The refusal by the United States to send home Aamer, who suffers from chronic psychological and physical conditions, is perhaps the biggest contradiction in the US administration’s stated commitment that it wants to close the infamous detention facility.
The British government has repeatedly requested that the US allow Aamer to return to the UK to rejoin his British wife and four children – including a child born the day he arrived at Guantanamo.
“He has been cleared for release for longer than President Obama has been president,” noted UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier this year.
Corbyn went on to question if Aamer was being held because “he knows too much and has seen too much – the hunger strikes, the torture and the brutality”.
Such demands show there are “no security concerns or else they are regarded as completely manageable”, Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief at the UK intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6, told Al Jazeera via email.
Emile Nakhleh, a retired former director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, agreed.
“The UK would be the best country to rely on [to take him]… We are not talking about Uganda or Mali for god’s sake,” said Nakhleh. “I mean we are talking about a country with established security services, [an] established value system.”
Aamer’s continued imprisonment – along with other prisoners – is of concern to both analysts.
“Certainly Guantanamo and other examples of detention without trial have proved effective recruitment tools for extremists,” noted Barrett, now a senior vice president of security analysis firm The Soufan Group.
“You only have to note the use of orange jump suits by, for example, the Islamic State to see the use and impact of this symbolism in extremist propaganda.”
Nakhleh concurred that the prison had generated violent resentment.
“I have always argued that Guantanamo should be shut down because it was always a recruiting cause for jihadis overseas,” he said.
The transfer of Aamer and cleared men like him – including Tariq Ba Odah a hunger-striker near death and Fahd Ghazy who has been in US custody since he was 17 – could be authorised by the Justice Department without any interference from Congress, often cited as a stumbling block, if Obama simply ordered the department to stop fighting the habeas cases.
But Obama has chosen not to do that.
“The fact is there is a disconnect,” Nakhleh said. “I think the president has concluded that you can close Guantanamo by emptying Guantanamo. And you can’t empty it while your Justice Department is fighting habeas cases. The two don’t go together.”
‘Worst of the worst’
The so-called “forever prisoners” at Guantanamo – those who are neither charged with a crime nor cleared for release – are slowly pleading their cases in front of the Periodic Review Board, which was established by an executive order signed by Obama on March 7, 2011.
The prisoners were promised a hearing within a year – that has not happened either.
On Tuesday, Moath al-Alwi was the latest to ask the six interagency government panel -which includes the Pentagon and State Department – to approve him for transfer.
Al-Alwi, a Yemeni raised in Saudi Arabia, said he was in Afghanistan as a young man of 24 to teach the Quran in 2001. He fled the country after the US-led invasion and was captured and likely sold for bounty – as many Arabs were – and then rendered to Guantanamo.
This “worst of the worst” prisoner – as he and the men like him have been branded – weighs only 97 pounds (44kg) and stands 5’5″ (1.68m) tall. He has been hunger-striking for more than two years to peacefully protest his detention.
Al-Alwi makes sweets at the prison for other inmates and the guards. He has even created his own type of candy bars, according to his lawyer Ramzi Kassem.
If al-Alwai is approved for transfer, his hunger strike would end, he’s indicated.
Of the 18 Guantanamo prisoners who have appeared before the review board, decisions are pending in four cases. But 11 men have been cleared for transfer, including most recently the last Kuwaiti prisoner, Fayiz al-Kandari, and a Libyan, Omar Khalif Mohammed, whose right leg is missing below the knee, has metal pins in his left leg, and is blind in one eye.
“Sometimes he tries to move by walking on his knee and the stump where his right leg once was… It is hard for him to eat, to shower, and even to use the toilet,” according to Kassem, who represents him as well.
Un-cleared men yet to receive dates to appear before the board include a prisoner who had a dating profile, and best-selling author Mohamedou Ould Slahi who was just long-listed for the UK’s most prestigious award for non-fiction.
|The quagmire of Guantanamo?|
US Military Commissions have all but ground to a halt – plagued by questionable prosecutorial behavior and legal setbacks.
Accused mastermind of the September 11 attacks Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators are still in pre-trial hearings some 14 years later. The New York Times called the commissions a “legal farce and a practical failure”.
“The fact is there are some who can easily be tried in US courts. We have a great judicial system,” Nakhleh said. “The US courts have already convicted over a 100 terrorists and potential terrorists who are rotting in maximum security jails… So it is not that the legal system cannot handle that.”
Several existing military convictions have been overturned in part or full. The Guantanamo military court also holds the dubious distinction of being the only international tribunal in modern history to prosecute a child – Omar Khadr – for war crimes.
The number of prisoners held at Guantanamo has dwindled since Obama took office from 242 in early 2009 to 114 at present. But for the men promised by the president that the prison would be closed long ago – that is of little solace, al-Alwi wrote in an opinion piece in June.
“The world may turn a blind eye and find this number small, but for each of us here, the cost of our indefinite and unfair imprisonment is beyond immeasurable.”