Guantanamo Bay closure: Why plans to close the notorious prison may be wishful thinking

After 13 years, is the end really in sight for the prison camp that shamed the West?

Rupert Cornwell
Thursday 23 July 2015 20:11
Military Police guard Taliban and al Qaeda detainees in orange jumpsuits 11 January 2002
Military Police guard Taliban and al Qaeda detainees in orange jumpsuits 11 January 2002

It sounds like an old vinyl record stuck in its groove, another regular reminder of what has long since been a national disgrace. After six years of trying in vain to close the infamous prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, the White House, it is said, is close to finalising another plan to do just that. To which one is tempted to reply: “Dream on”.

It was just two days after his first inauguration, on 22 January 2009, that President Obama signed an order requiring that the detention facility in Cuba be shut down. No longer, he said, need the United States be confronted with “a false choice between its security and its ideals.” In the case of Guantanamo however, that choice has persisted, and security, whatever the price to the country’s reputation abroad, has won.

True, the number of detainees at “Gitmo” has fallen steeply during the near 14 years it has been in operation, to just 116 today from a peak of 684 in 2003. Of those that remain 99 have been held for at least 10 years, many without specific charges being brought, while 52 have been approved for release.

A detainee is escorted by military police at Camp 4 of the maximum security prison Camp Delta at Guantanamo Naval Base, 26 August 2004

Yes, a few truly big fishes are to be found there, like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a prime organiser of the 9/11 attacks. But many others are the smallest of fry, individuals picked up on or around the battlefields of Afghanistan in the first months of the war, some of them traded for money to the US authorities by tribal leaders, guilty of little more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It is their ordeal that has generated the headlines that shame America: the denial of proper legal representation, the suicides and hunger strikes born of despair. Take Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni cleared for release in 2009 but who has languished at Guantanamo, trapped in a legal limbo unmitigated by the bureaucratic confections that lend a veneer of propriety to proceedings – Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT), Administrative Review Boards, Periodic Review Boards, Inter-Agency Task Forces and suchlike.

Since 2007 he has maintained a hunger strike. He is kept alive only by twice-daily forced feeding, a practice now deemed to be torture. His weight has shrivelled from over 11st to barely over 5st. Still, amazingly, he has not lost all hope. In the meantime the trickle of releases has dried up. The last approvals date back to January. The final six men who were freed were resettled last month in Oman. In February, a new Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, took over from Chuck Hagel, who signed off on the final transfers. Since then, nothing.

So why the hold-ups? About all that can be said in defence of the status quo is that the bulk of those are, like Mr Odah, from Yemen, and the civil war raging there renders simple repatriation next to impossible. There then arises the problem of where. Other countries in their region, some with highly oppressive regimes, have not rushed in to help.

A Guantanamo detainee runs inside an exercise area at the detention facility April 27, 2010

And Yemen, of course, is just part of the broader chaos across the Middle East. The spread of Isis, the horrific videos of beheadings and other atrocities, hardly strengthen the case for sending back dozens of people justifiably outraged at the way they have been treated by a country that proclaims itself a champion of the rights of man.

The true obstacle however is the attitude of ordinary Americans, reflected in a Congress that, time and again, has stymied efforts to shut Guantanamo down. There is no reason to doubt Obama’s sincerity in seeking that end; even President Bush, during whose administration Gitmo opened, wanted no more of the place, only to realise that prisons, like wars, are much easier to start than to end.

But, for all the agitation of human rights groups, the general public simply doesn’t care that much. And even if it did, the shameless fearmongering on Capitol Hill would probably win the day. Fearmongering explains why Guantanamo inmates can’t be transferred to prisons on the US mainland (as if they’d make a break from a federal supermax). It partly explains too why Congress refuses to allow their cases to be heard by standard criminal courts (which have handled other high-profile terror cases competently and without incident).

One of the 80 Al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees (2nd L) wearing an orange jump suit can be seen in his cell at Camp X-Ray

The other part of the explanation is of course that the evidence against many suspects, whether extracted by torture or consisting of little more than hearsay, would be inadmissible in a normal civilian court. But, then again, who cares?

As Tom Cotton, the brash young Republican Senator from Arkansas, has put it: “In my opinion, the only problem with Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now. As far as I’m concerned every last one of them can rot in Hell, but as long as they don’t do that, they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.” Charming stuff. But even responsible voices like Speaker John Boehner insist that “bipartisan majorities in Congress” oppose closing the prison and “bringing dangerous terrorists to US soil.” Every sign is that he is right.

So is there a chance that six and a half years after signing that initial presidential order, Obama can finally deliver? Perennial optimists will point to the Senate version of the latest Pentagon spending bill which maintains current restrictions but at least offers a path towards shutting Gitmo down.

Not so, however, the House of Representatives version, which if anything tightens existing conditions. The two texts have to be reconciled. Obama has promised to veto any measure that does not allow closure of Guantanamo Bay. Surely though, only if the Senate prevails will this latest White House plan have a chance.

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