on the world: a view on human rights
How hard can it be to set a prisoner free after you have held them for over a decade without any charges or proof to try them? Or maybe even some 200 odd prisoners? Not so long ago, constitutional lawyer, Nobel Peace Prize winner and US president Barack Obama would have fallen neatly into the “not too hard” camp. After all, legally speaking, prisoners are humans and humans apparently have rights. If asked if the US could do it at Guantánamo Bay, he would have said: “yes, we can”. In fact, he once felt so strongly that it was a change we could believe in, he
made it a key promise in his 2008 election campaign and promptly upon inauguration as president in January 2009 put that pledge into writing, promising to close Guantánamo within one year. Contrary to a widely-held belief, that did not actually happen in early 2010.
Instead, the usual suspects of excuses about “terrorism suspects” have circulated around the halls of power in Washington for over 11 years: a long time to be suspected without proof. Many of the myths surrounding the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay have long been debunked, particularly after Wikileak’s publication of “The Guantánamo Files” in April 2011, showing just how flimsy the basis is on which many prisoners were and continue to be held.
While President Obama’s unofficial drone strike statistics have been impressive, those coming out of Guantánamo have not: in the past four years, only 72 prisoners have been released, four of them in coffins. Of the 166 remaining prisoners, more than half have been cleared for release. A recent report by the US Senate’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) claims that the prisoners could be absorbed into the prison population in the US mainland, if allowed to enter the territory, a perennial issue, currently being discussed in the bill for this year’s US military spending National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which the Obama administration is threatening to veto. This dodges the issue: after 11 years, we still do not know why the prisoners are locked up. Location is not the point: with few exceptions, the prisoners are not convicts but hostages to a regime of arbitrary detention.
Is there no way out? This time around Barack Obama did not want to talk about it. Guantánamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and the US’s human rights abuses were not a subject of election rhetoric or empty promises. Nonetheless, this did not prevent two things happening, ignored during the election campaign, that clearly shed light on how ridiculous and unjust the system is.
Weeks before the 6 November election, Salim Hamdan, who had worked in Afghanistan as a chauffeur to Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s, had his 2008 conviction by a military tribunal at Guantánamo Bay for providing material support for terrorism quashed, as the offence did not exist at the time that the crime was alleged to have taken place. In a unanimous judgment by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Judge Brett Kavanagh stated: “If the government wanted to charge Hamdan with aiding and abetting terrorism or some other war crime that was sufficiently rooted in the international law of war at the time of Hamdan’s conduct, it should have done so.” This judgment not only challenges the whole kangaroo court military tribunal system, which is not recognised under international law or US law, as it appears, but could lead to other convictions being overturned. The following day, former Australian prisoner David Hicks said he would appeal his similar conviction and others may follow suit. It also undermines the position of the US’s allies, such as Canada who believe that kangaroo courts and torture evidence can secure lawful convictions.
The other news from Guantánamo, just days before the 9/11 anniversary, the alleged raison d’être for Guantánamo’s continuing existence, was far more sombre: on 8 September, 36-year old Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif from Yemen, one of the first prisoners transferred to Guantánamo Bay in January 2002, but never tried or convicted, was found dead in his cell. As often happens
when the truth is absent, and neither his identity nor “official” cause of death was reported for several days, rumours have since circulated about his death: was it a suicide, was he murdered? Mr Abdul Latif’s is the ninth death in Guantánamo Bay in just over a decade. His story undermines the stated purpose of Guantánamo: a poor man who could not afford medical treatment in his native country for injuries sustained in a car crash was kidnapped in Afghanistan, a country where he could afford it, and later taken to Guantánamo Bay. Never charged or tried, he was cleared for release on several occasions since 2006, however following Obama’s moratorium on releases to Yemen in January 2010, citing security concerns, he remained at Guantánamo, having nowhere else to go. Almost half the prisoners cleared for release are Yemeni and find themselves in the same predicament. More recently, further evidence has emerged concerning the discrepancies in the official story of his death. Does it have to come to this?
Obama claims he still wants to see Guantánamo Bay shut down, but the actions of his administration and the collusion of his friends abroad paint quite a different picture, in spite of the alleged political pressures in the US Congress. Indeed, in the 2012 NDAA, mentioned above, the regime of arbitrary detention without trial was made perpetual and extended to US citizens. There is no proof that extraordinary rendition has ended and elsewhere in Afghanistan, the prisoner population swelled to over 3000 at Bagram, where prisoners do not have even basic legal rights. In 2011, US law professor Jonathan Hafetz placed the blame for the failure to close Guantánamo on the shoulders of the Obama administration, stating that Obama “sought only to reform Guantanamo not to end it”. It is clear that over the past decade, given numerous opportunities to close Guantánamo, the US and its allies have failed to, perhaps deliberately. Guantánamo Bay is far more than a place and a prison: it is a symbol and a symptom of modern injustice and the flagrant disregard for the rule of law shown by modern states. Many states have used it as an excuse to implement similar systems and run their own mini “Guantanamos”; in the UK, this has translated into detention without charge or trial for foreign terrorism suspects and detainees at immigration removal centres, including children in the latter case. Almost 11 years later, the world is most definitely no safer a place than it was on 10 January 2002. With a running cost of around $800,000 per year per prisoner, no one can claim to have a real interest in the perpetuation of the regime at Guantánamo Bay except for beneficiaries of the over USD 2 billion costs Guantánamo Bay has run up at the expense of the US taxpayer.
The failure of governments, however, is not the failure of civil society. While injustice and exploitation is too often the hand played by those who can, the fight for justice has always been the duty of ordinary people who are audacious enough to care. As long as Guantánamo Bay and other modern symbols of torture, injustice and arbitrary detention continue to exist so will the struggle for justice and freedom.
In London, on Friday 11 January 2013, we will mark Guantánamo Bay’s 11th birthday with a day of action. We invite you to join us. The London Guantánamo Campaign will hold a day-long event, “All Roads Lead to Guantánamo” consisting of a series of tours, covering the journeys of five prisoners to Guantánamo: British residents Shaker Aamer and Ahmed Belbacha, former child prisoner Omar Khadr, the late Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif and the harrowing story of waterboarding and extraordinary rendition victim Abd El-Rahim Al-Nashiri, currently facing the death penalty at Guantánamo Bay. We invite you to join these tours, which will consist of an awareness-raising journey across London taking in the embassies of countries involved in the journey of these men to Guantánamo Bay. Almost all states have in one way or another – hosting torture facilities, facilitating torture flights, etc. –been involved and have a part to play in what continues to go on at Guantánamo Bay. Earlier this year, the European Parliament reopened its investigation into the collusion of its member states; most had facilitated torture and some, such as Poland, Lithuania and Romania, had hosted torture facilities. Several cases concerning torture and extraordinary rendition are currently pending before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and recently one such case was won by German rendition victim Khaled El Masri (who was not sent to Guantánamo) against Macedonia.
The tours will be educational to raise awareness; eleven years after the opening of Guantánamo Bay, there is still a considerable lack of awareness about the issues involved and governments have managed to hide their collusion successfully behind the protection offered by the secrecy cloak of national security and convoluted legal and political arguments. Part enlightenment, part flash mob, we anticipate the tours – which should each last 2-3 hours (except Al-Nashiri’s) will be an enjoyable and eye-opening experience and invite you to take part personally if you are in London. Education should be an on-going and interactive process and otherwise we invite you to join in the action from wherever you are and from the comfort of your desk, mobile phone, laptop or any other electrical device to keep up with the tours as they progress, in words and pictures, over the day via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and our blog.
As the tours progress and get closer to the arrival of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, we invite you to join us as we converge for a public rally outside the US Embassy in Mayfair, London, where all our “roads” lead and join up, at 6pm that evening. If you cannot join the daytime tours, then we urge you to keep up with them from wherever you are, and join us in the evening as we send a strong message to President Obama that the closure of Guantánamo Bay is still something we believe in. We will read out your messages to President Obama about Guantánamo Bay during the vigil. Please send short messages (Tweet/SMS length) to the London Guantánamo Campaign.
Eleven years later, it is still as important as ever to take action for the Guantánamo prisoners and prevent the issues of justice, arbitrary detention and torture from falling under the radar. Eleven years of imprisonment and abuse without charge or trial and no prospect of release on the horizon, as is the case for most of these prisoners, is far worse a sentence than that given to convicted criminals, who at least know their crime and the sentence. The governments of the world, who have played their role in this injustice, have long chosen to look away. How much longer can you?
A promo video for this action can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gzhe9BnrGIk
Aisha Maniar is the co-ordinator of the London Guantánamo Campaign’s “All Roads Lead to Guantánamo” day of action on Friday 11 January 2013 to mark the eleventh anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo.