Two days after his inauguration in January 2009, Barack Obama, the US president, signed an executive order promising to close the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within one year.
But the deadline was missed, and today some 180 men are still being held at Guantanamo.
Now many worry that Guantanamo may not close during Obama’s first term and may even stay open far into the future.
People & Power‘s Bob Abeshouse investigates why Guantanamo remains open, and the obstacles to closing it any time soon.
Since January 2002, almost 800 prisoners of the US “war on terror” have passed through Guantanamo’s gates, arriving on flights from the Middle East and other secret sites. Once there, they are held in harsh conditions and interrogated using techniques that have greatly damaged the US’ reputation around the globe.
Lieutenant Colonel Darrel Vandeveld was a prosecutor at Guantanamo in 2007 and 2008 for the office of military commissions. He arrived in Guantanamo after serving in Iraq.
“I was a true believer. I, like a lot of people, assumed that everyone at Guantanamo was a terrorist. Everyone was guilty,” he says.
One of Vandefeld’s first assignments was to prosecute Mohammed Jawad, an Afghan teenager accused of wounding soldiers by throwing a grenade into a jeep.
“According to the information that I had been given, he had given a full confession.”
But when he started looking into the case, Vandefeld realised “the prosecution office was in a complete shambles. There was no central repository for evidence that could be relied upon. And it was almost as if the Bush administration had never intended to prosecute cases in the first place. I found that absolutely appalling after six years of holding these people”.
A videotape of Jawad’s interrogation could not be found and there were troubling inconsistencies in witness testimony. Most disturbing was the treatment Jawad received at Guantanamo.
“Jawad had attempted to commit suicide by banging his head against the wall of his cell,” Vandefeld says.
‘Frequent flyer programme’
|Vandeveld says there was cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment at Guantanamo|
Vandeveld unearthed records revealing that in 2003 Jawad had been subjected to a routine guards called the “frequent flyer prgramme” – a sleep deprivation programme designed to soften up detainees for interrogation.
“It entailed moving detainees every two hours from cell to cell. And this went on for 14 days without interruption. After 48 hours of sleep deprivation you can’t even recall your own name. Anything that comes out of your mouth is completely unreliable,” Vandeveld says.
Vandeveld felt the case was falling apart and sought a deal with Jawad’s defence council, but the chief prosecutor at the time rejected it.
He realised the system was so fraught with the potential for error that the achievement of justice was impossible, so asked for reassignment to Afghanistan or Iraq. Instead he was released from active duty.
“It’s my belief that American soldiers have been killed as a result of converts to jihad because of Guantanamo Bay. It’s the site of where a lot of inhumane, un-American activity took place. They call them camps, they’re prisons. Just tear them down.”
A broken promise
Shortly after his inauguration, Obama promised Guantanamo would be “closed no later than one year from now”.
Each of the 242 detainees then at Guantanamo was to be repatriated, transferred to a third country, or sent to an alternative detention facility. Those who could be tried, would be.
But the deadline was missed, and efforts to close the facility have so far failed – undone by congress, legal dilemmas and domestic politics.
“It’s unclear, as we sit today, whether it’s gonna close at all,” says Matt D’Aloisio, one of the founders of Witness Against Torture, a group that has been fighting since 2005 to get Guantanamo closed.
In its first 100 days, the Obama administration set up an interagency task force to determine how each Guantanamo prisoner should be handled. The task force took almost a year to complete its work.
“We have moved over 50 people out of Guantanamo including 31 to find new homes in third countries,” says Ambassador Daniel Fried, whose job it is as the US special envoy for the closure of Guantanamo to negotiate with countries to accept detainees.
One of the released was Mohammed Jawad. But there are still some 100 detainees at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release. The administration wants to hold about 50 more indefinetely without charge and to try 36 in civilian or military courts.
“It turned out that there was no, believe it or not, no central place where the records on the detainees were kept. Secondly there is to be very blunt about it a debate within the United States about Guantanamo. It’s a highly contentious issue,” Fried says.
|Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay [AFP]|
It became a contentious issue in Spring 2009, after Obama released the Bush justice department’s so-called torture memos that authorised waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques.
“That was when Republicans decided to sort of move focus onto Guantanamo – to put up a big fight against President Obama’s plan to close it. And the White House really lost control of the situation politically speaking,” Josh Gerstein, a columnist for Politico, says.
The backlash derailed a plan to persuade other countries to take Guantanamo detainees by settling a few Uighur Muslims in the US.
They had fled China because of oppression and gone to Afghanistan to live. When the war started, the Uighurs tried to leave and were picked up by bounty hunters on the border who turned them over to Pakistani police in return for money the US was offering for the capture of Taliban fighters.
“Each of them were sold out for like $3,000 to $5,000. And and then Pakistani forces turned them over to United States as terrorists,” Rushan Abbas, an Uighur American who translated for the military and lawyers representing the Uighurs at Guantanamo since 2002, says.
“The Uighurs were the easiest case for the United States to deal with. Because from day one they were cleared to be innocent.”
But the US decided not to send them back to China where they would be persecuted. Other countries would not take them for fear of angering the Chinese.
“Some of the Uighurs [were] supposed to be brought to [the] United States. But then it was leaked to the media. And then some of the congressmen used this to stop shutting down Guantanamo,” Abbas says.
Word that the Uighurs were coming to the US led congress to pass legislation preventing the use of public funds to bring Guantanamo prisoners to the US in 2009.
“I believe if President Obama took leadership on the Uighur issue in particular shortly after calling for the closure of Guantanamo and signing the executive order that would have been the thing that started the ball rolling towards its closure. One of the big objections in accepting people from Guantanamo is that the United States hasn’t,” D’Aloisio says.
Congress also passed legislation banning the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to the US this year, but after arm-twisting from the White House, it made an exception – allowing detainees to be brought to the US for trial.
“After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for the attacks of September 11 will finally face justice,” Eric Holder, the US attorney general, says.
He announced in November that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others at Guantanamo would face trial in a US civilian court.
‘A shift in public opinion’
|Plans to move some detainees to an Illinois prison were criticised by Republicans [Reuters]|
But Republicans struck back again, sensing an opportunity for the 2010 congressional elections.
The potency of the issue was evident in January when Republican Scott Brown pulled off a stunning upset, winning a senate seat held by Democrat Edward Kennedy for almost 50 years.
“Scott Brown used this Guantanamo issue very effectively in his campaign. And it really shook up a lot of Democrats,” Gerstein says.
Soon after Brown’s win, Holder announced that he was reconsidering how and where to try the 9/11 defendants – and that the president would be weighing in.
“I think the president should consider changing positions on Guantanamo and the terror trials sooner rather than later,” Professor William Martel of Tufts University, says.
He believes that a massive shift in public opinion took place late last year after a Muslim psychiatrist went on a killing spree at Fort Hood in Texas, and a Nigerian tried to blow up an American jetliner on Christmas day.
“My view is that there are times in democractic societies when you have such an upwelling, a coalesing of public support, that it’s very risky for policymakers to run against that.”
The risks of voting to bring detainees to the US are holding up action in congress on an administration request for $350mn to revamp a prison in Thompson, Illinois as a new home for Guantanamo prisoners. So are concerns about new legal rights the prisoners might gain if housed on the mainland.
Republican senator Lindsey Graham and others on Capitol Hill are worried about detainees moved to Thompson who win cases challenging their imprisonment after submitting what are known as habeas corpus petitions to US courts.
He says he will work with the administration to close Guantanamo, but he is demanding a new indefinite detention law to prevent judges from releasing detainees into the US.
“That is not how I want to see Guantanamo closed. My view is, that everyone should either be charged or released. I don’t think there’s a basis for indefinite detention. I think it’s contrary to our deepest values, to hold men because of a prediction of future dangerousness. Those predictions cannot ever be vindicated, and basically, the decision to keep men indefinitely, is as good as a conviction,” attorney David Remes, who represented men at Guantanamo since 2004, says.
Remes and human rights advocates say that holding men at Thompson without charge or who have won their habeas cases would just create a Guantanamo north.
|General Lake believes that the trials might keep Guantanamo open for a while|
Some of the Guantanamo detainees who have been approved for transfer are housed in an open air camp with dormitory living.
The detainees have access to a library, medical care, have multiple meal choices and can attend classes that are held in one of the two indoor prisons at Guantanamo built at a cost of more than $60mn.
“Currently over 80 per cent of the detainees here at Guantanamo live in a communal environment whereby they have about 20 hours a day of free movement and recreational time,” Brigadier General Timothy Lake, the deputy commander of the task force that runs Guantanamo, says.
“We do in fact have first-class maximum and first-class communal living detention facilities.”
Fourteen men who have won habeas cases challenging their imprisonment remain at Guantanamo while the Obama administration appeals decisions that they should be released.
Ruth Hooke of Amherst Massachusetts wants the injustice to stop and asked officials in her town to pass a resolution to help free cleared detainees.
“The best thing to help close Guantanamo would be to have cities and towns all over America say ‘We are willing to take these detainees into our community’,” Hooke says.
Vandeveld, now head of a public defenders office in Pennsylvania, believes that US citizens must overcome fears about civilian trials for Guantanamo prisoners.
Insiders expect the Obama administration to reverse course and decide to try the 9/11 defendants by military commission at Guantanamo’s Camp Justice – in a new $12 mn courthouse.
General Lake believes that the trials will keep Guantanamo open for a while.
Vandeveld agrees: “I’m not optimistic that it’ll ever be closed down. The reason is that what used to be called the global war on terror has no definite ending. It’ll have to wait until every one of the detainees dies of old age, probably before it’s closed. It’ll be around for a long time.”
Guantanamo forever aired from Wednesday, May 19, 2010.