In his first State of the Union address, President Barack Obama signalled a brave new direction in the campaign his predecessor had so cleverly dubbed the War on Terror. "To overcome extremism, we must also be vigilant in upholding the values that our troops defend," Obama announced.
"There is no force in the world more powerful than the example of America. That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay."
Those hopey-changey words, on 24 February 2009, today speak volumes for the gap between the rhetoric that propelled Obama to the White House and the reality of his first term in office.
Gitmo never closed. A total of 779 prisoners have been incarcerated there, of which 171 remain. Some 46 of them are classified as "indefinite detainees" who have no prospect of any form of trial.
That a campaign pledge by a US President could have been so flagrantly ignored is a result of the legal can of worms the Bush administration opened when it decided, in the aftermath of 9/11, to open Guantanamo. The military facility, on a 45sq mile portion of the south-eastern tip of Cuba leased by the US Navy in 1903, was chosen because it was not officially part of the United States. Government lawyers could therefore argue that inmates were not subject to normal protections afforded by both the Geneva Convention and US Constitution.
Hundreds of detainees duly spent years in the centre without being told why they were there. Most were neither charged, nor afforded normal meetings with an attorney. Many were handed to the US by authorities in countries such as Pakistan, in exchange for bounty payments.
In the coming weeks, a military tribunal will hold the trial of one of Guantanamo's most notorious inmates: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, self-confessed architect of the 9/11 attacks. His defence is likely to argue that charges should be thrown out, since he has repeatedly been subjected to torture in captivity. It would be a bitter irony if Guantanamo ultimately helped a terrorist to get away with murder.
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