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on the world: a view on human rights

Guantánamo Bay: Second Chance for Obama?

courtesy of Witness Against Torture

Courtesy of Witness Against Torture

Last week, the illegal prison camp at Guantánamo Bay turned eleven. The fact that it is still open and operational is perhaps of one of the biggest failings of Barack Obama in his first term as president. Once a key election promise and the subject of a presidential decree signed just days after his inauguration, pledging to close Guantánamo Bay by January 2010, suspend military commissions and hold prisoners in humane conditions, the political rhetoric and election promises have long evaporated and translated into a more dystopian reality than even that offered by the legacy of his predecessor, George Bush.

Over the past four years, the Obama administration has missed chance after chance to close Guantánamo or bring that closer to realisation. This was exemplified earlier this month in President Obama signing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 2013, an annual defence spending law, imposing transfer restrictions on prisoner releases, making their release more difficult in the coming year, in spite of a threat to veto this provision under his presidential powers. In addition to wasted opportunities, and succumbing to pressure from political opponents, the current administration has exported the regime at Guantánamo elsewhere, including the US mainland by extending detention without trial provisions to all US citizens under the NDAA 2012 and making administrative detention a condition for the handover of Bagram prison in Afghanistan to the authorities there.

Unsurprisingly then, no promises were made about Guantánamo in last year’s election campaign and it was seldom mentioned, which is not to say that there was nothing to report. In September, the death of a prisoner there highlighted the fact that after 11 years of arbitrary detention without charge or trial, prisoners at Guantánamo Bay have never stood any kind of chance at all. Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a 36-year old Yemeni prisoner had been cleared for release on several occasions and remained at Guantánamo Bay like most other Yemeni prisoners, the single largest nationality, simply as a result of the ban imposed by President Obama on the return of prisoners to Yemen in 2010. Although the official cause of death given by the US military is suicide, his US lawyer David Remes stated shortly after his death that “However Adnan died, it was Guantánamo that killed him. His death is a reminder of the human cost of the government’s Guantánamo detention policy and underscores the urgency of releasing detainees the government does not intend to prosecute.” Over half of the remaining 166 prisoners are cleared for release.

Many arguments for Guantánamo’s continuing existence fell apart during Obama’s first term, particularly through Wikileak’s publication of “The Guantánamo Files” in April 2011, debunking many myths about “the worst of the worst”. Furthermore, just weeks before the November election, a federal appeals court overturned a Guantánamo military commission conviction as the offence did not exist at the time that it took place. In light of this ruling, and what constitutes a war crime, the trial of five prisoners alleged to have been involved in the 9/11 attacks, due to resume later this month, has seen the chief prosecutor ask for conspiracy charges against the defendants to be dropped. That request was dismissed on Friday, making a conviction in the case likely to be appealed and overturned at appeal.

In a world where the rule of law, justice and due process rights are respected, Guantánamo Bay and the lawless system it has come to symbolise would have no place. Defences for the indefensible have long been thin on the ground. Any time over the past eleven years would have been the right time to close Guantánamo, but it has not happened. President Obama must make the closure of Guantánamo Bay a priority and a reality in his second term. Apathy and international silence bought through the collusion of states worldwide will not make the issue go away.

Campaigners for the closure of Guantánamo Bay are giving President Obama a second chance too. Last week, activists for human rights and justice around the world protested the continued existence of Guantánamo. Our calls for justice will not be silenced and we will not give up the good fight.  In London, we marked the anniversary with a day of action highlighting the complicity of European and other states in the ongoing injustice at Guantánamo Bay. Next month will also mark six years of regular demonstrations calling for the closure of Guantánamo Bay outside the US Embassy in London. Others have used the eleventh anniversary and President Obama’s re-inauguration as an opportunity, on this side of the Atlantic, to step up the campaign for the release of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident held at Guantánamo Bay without charge or trial for over 11 years for reasons too baffling for the US and UK governments to explain. Like Barack Obama, Shaker Aamer is a husband and a father; he has a son whom he has never met before due to his prolonged and unfathomable detention. Amnesty International UK took the opportunity to launch a new petition to the government calling for Shaker Aamer’s release to the UK. This is in addition to a further ongoing e-petition campaign to David Cameron which ends in April this year. Further actions are planned in his case. Disappointment with Barack Obama’s empty words has not dampened the resolve of activists and our wish to give him every reason to see through on his promise to close Guantánamo. Our disappointment cannot match that of the prisoners and their families who still wait for justice.

President Obama’s public inauguration falls on 21 January, coinciding with the birthday of the great Black American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King. Many view this as an auspicious occasion. Dr King once had a dream “to let freedom ring” and advocated justice; should Barack Obama fail to rise to this challenge in his next term, it is likely that he will go down in history not only for having broken his promises on Guantánamo, but having turned the dreams of something better of so many into a nightmare.


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