March 31st, 2014

Commentary | February 7th, 2013
Obama’s Gitmo game
Four years later, Guantanamo Bay is still open
Written by

Remember when Obama promised to shut Gitmo (the Guantanamo Bay detention centre)? Well, he just officially gave up. Yep, the State Department closed down that office entirely.

Despite having the self-adopted motto “Safe, humane, legal, transparent,” Gitmo still holds 166 inmates, of which all but nine are without conviction or charge. The United States argues that the third Geneva Convention, which protects prisoners of war, does not apply to Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters, and only to uniformed soldiers. This claim creates a distinction between “prisoners of war” and “illegal combatants.”

The prison camp has a record of holding prisoners indefinitely and without charge. Many different torture techniques – including sleep deprivation, beatings (with broken glass, barbed wire, and burning cigarettes), solitary confinement, cold cells, sexual harassment, and forced drug injections – are also allegedly used at the camp. Amnesty International has named Gitmo a human rights scandal on numerous occasions.

Moreover, under new rules passed by the Obama administration in 2012, if a Gitmo detainee loses a first habeas corpus trial, the prisoner no longer has the right to a lawyer.

Just after winning his first presidential election, in 2008, Obama said: “I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that.”

It looked like he would follow through: on his first day in office, January 20, 2009, Obama issued an executive order closing the Guantanamo detention facility.

But it’s February 2013 and the Gitmo is still open.

True, Obama did try to pass a bill through Congress that would close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. But Congress blocked the bill. Obama’s National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor was quick to point the finger: “Obviously Congress has taken a number of steps to prevent the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but the President still believes it’s in our national security interest and will keep trying.”

However, Vietor’s accusation hid some of the truth. The same bill also called for the construction of a new, similarly inhumane detention centre on U.S. soil. Dubbed “North Gitmo,” the plan to build the new prison in Illinois was even voted against by Democrats in Congress.

No wonder the bill was turned down. Establishing a Gitmo-style prison on U.S. soil could set a dangerous precedent. If it works so well, why stop at one?

Some supporters of keeping Gitmo open argue that the 166 prisoners left are “too difficult to prosecute, too dangerous to release.”

I can understand the first part – we don’t want these guys going back to their home countries and ‘terrorist ways’ – but too difficult to prosecute? Why, because they have been tortured, or left for a decade in a cage with no outside communication, and very limited or no access to legal aid? The United States often champions values of justice and humanitarianism– it should do so again.

There were a lot of promises made four years ago, and many more last month. I hope, in Obama’s second term, we do see some of the changes that have been promised.

Omar Saadeh is a Master’s student in Engineering. Omar can be reached at omar.saadeh@mail.mcgill.ca.

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