Amidst hunger strike, pressure rises to close Guantanamo prison

President Barack Obama recently expressed himself eloquently to the effect that the continuing imprisonment of 166 men without trial at the Camp Delta prison at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is a national disgrace, and that he was going to move to close it.

However, civil liberties and human rights spokespersons worldwide are skeptical of his claim that up to now, his hands have been tied by the U.S. Congress.

A hunger strike by at least 100 prisoners at Guantanamo, now in its fourth month, continues, with a real risk of fatalities.

During the presidential election campaign of 2008, candidate Obama denounced these abuses and promised to close the Guantanamo prison. One of the first things he did after being inaugurated was to sign various executive orders designed to set the process into motion.

However, over the past four years, little has been accomplished toward closure of the prison. A major part of the problem has been Congressional action, spurred mostly but not only by Republicans who have put legislative obstacles in the way of freeing or transferring prisoners and closing the prison.  The Defense Authorization Acts of 2012 and again for 2012 include language forbidding the closing of Camp Delta and the transfer of detainees. President Obama objected to this and other things, but signed the legislation anyway.  

Meanwhile, things at Camp Delta have been dire.  Of the remaining 166 prisoners, a minority are believed to be dangerous terrorists.  Eighty six have actually been cleared for release but still sit in the cells and have no idea if they will ever taste freedom or see their families again.  There have been numerous suicide attempts by prisoners, six of which were successful (two other prisoners have also died). And for two months, a group of prisoners (originally 43) have been on a hunger strike.  

On April 13, military guards carried out a raid against striking prisoners who were complaining about disrespectful handling of Korans by prison personnel. Several prisoners and guards were injured in the raid, but the only result was that the number of hunger strikers increased to over a hundred, or more than half of the prison population.  

Now the U.S. has moved more medical personnel to Guantanamo to participate in the illegal force feeding of the hunger strikers. This brought a sharp condemnation by the American Medical Association, which pointed out that force feeding of this kind is a violation of medical ethics (and international law).

Obama’s statements must be seen in the context of these events and of the international condemnation which the Camp Delta situation has sparked.  Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human rights, condemned the continuing imprisonment of the detainees as a clear breach of international law.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has provided legal help, including the filing of numerous habeas corpus briefs, for the Camp Delta prisoners, expressed pleasure that Obama has stated that he plans to close the Guantanamo prison camp, but pointed out that even if Congress balks, there are a number of things Obama can do on his own to deal with the worst aspects of the problem:

*The president has the right to waive some of the congressional restrictions on transferring prisoners and he should use this right now for the 86 Camp Delta prisoners who have been cleared for release.

*Earlier, the government had stopped transferring detainees to Yemen; these transfers can be resumed.

*The job of the official supposedly in charge of transferring detainees has been sitting open since January; it should be filled forthwith.

*The federal government has fought habeas corpus briefs filed on behalf of Camp Delta prisoners; it is under no obligation to do so.

*Decisive action is needed or hunger strikers will begin to die.

In addition to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Center for Constitutional Rights, organizations which have spoken out this week demanding an end to this scandal include Amnesty International, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the U.N. Rapporteur on Torture, the U.N. Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, the U.N. Rapporteur on Health and the Cuban government, to name just a few.

The United States got control of the Guantanamo base by pressuring the newly independent Cuban government to rent it in perpetuity as a naval coaling station, back in 1903. Although no ships burn coal as fuel any more, the United States has hung onto the base for geopolitical reasons, despite forceful and repeated protests by the Cuban government.

In the 1990s, the U.S. government got the bright idea of using the base to house Haitian refugees from the dictatorship in that country, to keep them from coming to the United States. So after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the beginning of the “War Against Terror” and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Bush administration decided to use Guantanamo Bay to house prisoners it accused of being enemy combatants and dangerous terrorists.  As the base is only rented and is on Cuban national territory, Bush and friends thought that what they did there, including torture and indefinite detention without trial, could thereby be kept from the application of U.S. constitutional rights.

Photo:Detainees in orange jumpsuits sit in a holding area with Military Police at Camp X-Ray at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing to the temporary detention facility on Jan. 11, 2002. (Wikimedia)



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.