Closing Guantanamo only a first step

Two days after taking office, President Barack Obama announced that the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be closed by the end of this year at the latest. This step, which was acclaimed worldwide, is only the first in what many hope is an effort to restore constitutional guarantees and the rule of law which the Bush administration had been busily dismantling, under the cover of the “war on terror.”

The order to close Guantanamo was one of four signed by Obama on Jan. 22. The others forbid the CIA from running detention centers, suspend the activities of President Bush’s infamous “military commissions,” restrict methods used in interrogation of prisoners captured in war conditions to those outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual, assure access to all prisoners by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and make sure that treatment of all prisoners accused of terrorism or illegal attacks is in conformity with U.S. law (including constitutional guarantees) or, in some cases, with the Third Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. The fourth order requires a review of the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who is being held at the Naval Brig in Charleston, S.C. The president’s orders also set up review mechanisms to deal with the issue of what to do with the prisoners now held at Guantanamo, some of whom might be released and repatriated, and others put on trial in the regular U.S. court system.

The orders received wide praise from U.S. and international civil libertarians.

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has organized much of the defense of the prisoners held at Guantanamo and elsewhere, issued a statement which began: “We welcome the beginning of the end of lawlessness. Under the previous administration, executive orders became synonymous with secrecy, torture and attempts to override the Constitution.”

But it went on to warn that “the government has to charge the rest of the detainees in federal criminal court. There can be no third way, no new schemes for indefinite or preventive detention or alternative national security courts.”

The families of prisoners who have, in some cases, been held as long as six years at “Gitmo” without any due process filed a civil brief with the help of CCR accusing former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and 23 other U.S. officials of violation of the prisoners’ rights. Many of these prisoners have been physically and psychologically tortured, with at least three cases in which mistreatment caused the death of the inmate. These families expressed worry that the new attorney general, Eric Holder, might have committed himself to Republican senators during the confirmation process not to prosecute U.S. officials for torture or other violations of constitutional and human rights. Holder has denied making such a pledge.

Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said the announced closing of the Guantanamo prison camp is a “positive, but insufficient step.” Former Cuban President Fidel Castro reminded the U.S. that Cuba will not be satisfied until the entire Guantanamo base is closed down and the land restored to Cuba.

Indeed the history of Guantanamo is one of abuses of power, against nations as well as individuals. The U.S. lease of the bay was imposed on Cuba by the United States, more or less at gunpoint, in 1903. After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro’s government repeatedly demanded that the lease be ended, and refused to cash the rent checks. But U.S. imperialism had decided that Guantanamo Bay was essential for projection of U.S. military force against potential revolutionary developments in the Latin American-Caribbean area.

The goal of the Bush administration in turning Guantanamo Bay into a prison camp for people (eventually about 800) detained around the world in the “war on terror” was quite simple: keep them from enjoying either the rights of prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions or due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. The argument was that since the Guantanamo base actually belongs to Cuba, the prisoners there are not covered by U.S. law including constitutional guarantees of due process. However, even our federal courts would not completely go along with such an outrageous claim, and the government suffered several defeats in court.

Many questions remain. What, for example, is going to happen to people who are languishing in jails worldwide after being “rendered” by the U.S. government into the hands of foreign governments? The “military commissions” are suspended, but will they be permanently abolished? And in what devious ways will the CIA work to undermine the best intentions of Obama so as to continue on their torturing and murdering way?