Waiting for progress on Guantanamo

A year after Obama’s promise to resume releasing prisoners from Guantanamo, 78 men cleared for release are still there.

US President Barack Obama has promised to resume releasing Guantanamo prisoners [AFP/Getty Images]

May 23 marked a year since US President Barack Obama’s promise in a major speech on national security issues, to resume releasing prisoners from Guantanamo.

The day was marked by dozens of protests across the United States and in six other countries worldwide, but these coordinated protests, initiated by the US-based campaigning group Witness Against Torture, were greeted with silence in the mainstream media.

Last year’s promise came about because of the pressure exerted on Obama to commit to action after the men still held, embarked on a prison-wide hunger strike. This followed two and a half years in which just five men were released because of Congressional obstacles and the president’s refusal to overcome those obstacles, even though a waiver in the legislation allowed him to do so.

Since making that promise, Obama has appointed two envoys to deal with the closure of Guantanamo, and has released 12 prisoners, which is progress of a sort, although much more is required.

Yet 78 other men who have had their release approved are still held. Of them, 75 were approved for release in January 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantanamo Review Task Force that Obama appointed after taking office in 2009. Three others have had their release approved in recent months by Periodic Review Boards, convened to assess the status of 71 prisoners who were initially recommended by the task force for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial or for prosecution.

Guilt by nationality

The most recent case of a prisoner being recommended for release came on May 28, when Ghaleb al-Bihani, a Yemeni who served as an assistant cook for forces supporting the Taliban back in 2001, had his release recommended by a Periodic Review Board.

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Responding to the news, Pardiss Kebriaei, his lawyer at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights stated, “The Obama administration must now give effect to the board’s decision and release Mr al-Bihani. Simply adding him to the group of dozens of men cleared to leave Guantanamo, but still indefinitely detained, does nothing to end his wrongful detention or close the prison.”

This is certainly true, and pointedly so in the case of al-Bihani, who, as a Yemeni, finds himself in the company of 57 other Yemenis, who make up the majority of the men cleared for release but still held. In January 2010, when Obama’s task force issued its report, the president imposed a moratorium on releasing any cleared Yemeni prisoners from Guantanamo, after it was discovered that a failed airline bomb plot had been hatched in Yemen.

This was an outrageous manifestation of “guilt by nationality”, but it lasted until last May, when Obama stated that he was dropping his ban. Nevertheless, as Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights Pardiss Kebriaei noted, “Since President Obama lifted his self-imposed moratorium on transfers to Yemen a year ago and promised a ‘case-by-case’ review of individual men, not one Yemeni has been released. In fact, no Yemeni has left Guantanamo alive in nearly four years.”

On the same day that al-Bihani was cleared for release, Obama touched on Guantanamo in a speech about America’s foreign policy at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The president said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions. That’s why I will continue to push to close GTMO – because American values and legal traditions don’t permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.”

One year on from his promise to resume releasing prisoners from Guantanamo, the president’s words were as commendable as ever, but unless they are followed up with relevant actions they will reveal nothing but a gulf between words and action that has become rather predictable over the last five and a half years.

Failure to set free

If the president wants to be taken seriously, he must release some of the Yemeni men who have been waiting since 2010 to be reunited with their families, and to be given the opportunity to rebuild their lives.

If the president wants to be taken seriously, he should release Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison and let him return to London, where his wife and children await him. Aamer was cleared for release by a military review board under former US President George Bush in 2007, and again by Obama’s task force. The British government maintains that it has requested his return to the UK, and that Prime Minister David Cameron has raised the issue with Obama, and yet Aamer, who has numerous grave physical ailments, and is also suffering mentally, is still held.

Ex-gitmo detainee talks to Al Jazeera about Syria visit prior to UK detention

If the president wants to be taken seriously, he should release Abu Wael Dhiab, a Syrian who was cleared for release by the task force, and five other men who, like Dhiab, have been cleared for release but cannot be safely repatriated – three more Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian.

Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica has offered to take these men, and yet Obama has failed to take him up on his offer.

What makes this particularly incomprehensible is the fact that Dhiab recently won a victory in a US court that ought to make his departure from Guantanamo rather more pressing than it has been to date. In despair at ever being released, Dhiab has been on a hunger strike, to which the authorities have responded by force-feeding him. Recently, one of his lawyers found out from a Justice Department lawyer that videotapes exist of his force-feeding, and of his “forcible cell extractions” by the prison’s riot squad, and asked a US judge to order the government to halt his force-feeding and preserve the tapes.

On May 16, District Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the government to halt Dhiab’s force-feeding, and to preserve the videotapes. The week after, she dropped her stay on his force-feeding, fearing that otherwise he might die, but the whole episode has put pressure on the authorities at Guantanamo, and the most sensible option would be for Obama to take up Mujica’s offer, and to free Dhiab and the five other men as swiftly as possible.

Otherwise, it must be said, it will be perfectly acceptable for critics of Guantanamo to conclude that the president is not prepared to put his money where his mouth is. And that would be a tragedy for those men at Guantanamo who, like Dhiab, are force-fed only because they cannot cope with the particular cruelty of a government that approves them for release, but then fails to set them free. 

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist. He has been researching and writing about Guantanamo since 2006, and has worked with the United Nations, WikiLeaks, Reprieve and Cageprisoners. He is the co-founder of the Close Guantanamo campaign, and authored the book The Guantanamo Files.