Guantanamo Voices

GuantanamOBAMA Policy Roundup
January 19, 2009, 1:07 pm
Filed under: gitmo policy | Tags: , , ,

Oh my God. Barack Obama becomes America’s president in under 24 hours from now. Judging from the news coverage, the entire nation seems to be going batshit crazy in anticipation of his inauguration, but I’m more interested in what’s going to happen AFTER the big day — Obama promised to issue an executive order to close Gitmo on his first day in office, but there’s been a lot of discussion that the US is “stuck with Guantanamo.”

So what exactly will Obama have to do in order to close Guantanamo?

Reform Detention Policy:

Okay, first of all, big point: Guantanamo Bay is the best known prison established during the War on Terror, but it’s not the only one. The U.S. is also detaining suspected “enemy combatants” at prisons all over the world. People know about some of these detention centers (like ones in Bagram, Kandahar and Abu Ghraib) but the CIA also runs an unknown number of secret prisons. Since the people being imprisoned in those secret prisons aren’t acknowledged by the US military, they’re called “ghost detainees.” So according to groups like hte ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights, closing Guantanamo is only the tip of the iceberg. Obama must reform the U.S.’s overall detention policy and either close military prisons all over the world or go through due process for the detainees held there.

Address Use of Torture:

In a major break with the Bush administration’s defense of waterboarding, Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder publicly announced that waterboarding is a form of torture and should not be used by the US military. This means that in the coming year, Obama’s team will have to investigate the military’s use of this and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques. It’s not clear whether evidence gained from detainees under torture is admissible in court. One detainee who was waterboarded, Khalid Sheik Mohammed is being tried in January, so the courts will need to resolve that issue soon.

Review Cases of All Detainees

In the last three months, military courts have determined that nearly 10 percent of Guantanamo’s remaining population were not actually enemy combatants and should be released to freedom. These 24 men were part of a dwindling group of 245 detainees that Dick Cheney affirmed were definitely the “worst of the worst… now what’s left, that is the hardcore.” In order to get the detention system in working legally, Obama’s team will have to put all the men currently in US custody on trial.

Since former Guantanamo guard Chris Arendt ended his tour of duty at Guantanamo in 2004, about 500 of the detainees he guarded have been determined not to have been enemy combatants after all and released. “As things unravel, the job I was told to do becomes much more insidious every day. Every time a detainee is released without charges is proof that the United States was wrongfully imprisoning these people,” says Arendt, “It makes me feel sick in a really fundamental sense.”

Return Freed Detainees to Safe Places

A handful of the guys in Guantanamo have already been declared safe to release, but if they’re returned to their home countries, they’ll definitely be tortured. Specifically, seventeen men who were rebels in China before they wound up in Guantanamo will never be able to go home safely again. The U.S. needs to find places to resettle these wrongfully imprisoned men. This might mean pressuring European countries to grant asylum for ex-detainees — though the only country that has so far agreed to that idea is that bastion of democratic liberties, Albania.

Responding to Obama’s New Gitmo Plan

chris arendt jaralla al-marri al jazeeraChris and Jarallah hear the news about Obama’s Guantanamo policy change while they were signing the guestbook at Al Jazeera English, killing time in the television studio’s waiting room before their interview begins. Now that Chris had styled his mohawk and Jarallah had brushed his bushy beard, there was nothing to do but hang out and wait to be called on tv.  

And that’s a young woman with a headset poked her head in the door to tell them what she just heard over the wire: Obama announced that he wouldn’t be closing Guantanamo within 100 days as planned. He promises to issue an executive order on his first day in office to close the prison, but getting all the detainees out of there will take more than 100 days. For Chris and Jarallah, this immediately confirmed that Obama is just another promise-breaking politician.  Later, squeezed together in the back of a car racing toward a speaking event in Bristol, the American anarchist and former detainee tear Obama apart between each other.

“I saw the whole Obama campaign as like a car commercial, trying to sell me on a newer model of the same old shit,” says Chris.

“My hope, Obama promised, he can do something,” agrees Jarallah with his funny English syntax, “But my feeling is that he will not do what he can for the human beings.”

That night after the speaking event — which is standing room only in a Bristol activist center — a man from the crowd asks Jarallah to give a glimpse of what conditions for detainees might be like if Guantanamo is closed and the men hel;d there are moved to US soil. Jarallah’s brother, Ali, is the only “enemy combatant” imprisoned within the United States. He’s been held on a navy brig in South Carolina for seven years.

“He has been held in isolation for 14 months,” begins Jarallah, explaining that his brother has had trouble obtaining books and medical care and has been allowed to call his family only three times in seven years. Ali’s case is one of the complicated, unprecedented legal situations that Obama’s team will have to sort out. It seems that Ali was initially arrested (from his home in Illinois, where he was attending grad school) as a witness against his brother. But now Jaralla has been released and Ali is still imprisoned, still with no charges brought against him.

Obama recognized that these strange judicial situations might take a while to sort out, but said he is still committed to closing Guantanamo:

“It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize — and we are going to get it done — but part of the challenge ….. is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom who may be very dangerous, who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication,” Obama said.

While some evidence against terrorism suspects may be tainted by the tactics used to obtain it, Obama said, that doesn’t change the fact there are “people who are intent on blowing us up.”

Detainee Debacle Makes Top Headlines
January 8, 2009, 1:10 pm
Filed under: legal loopholes, media | Tags: , ,

I’m sitting on the floor of JFK airport in New York City, spreading peanut butter (from my 6 oz security-approved safe liquids container) onto a granola bar, waiting for my flight to London where I’ll meet up with Arendt, Begg and Al Haj for the first time. Check out what’s front page news at Delta’s international terminal:

UK's Guantanamo "Exiles" - Jan. 1 issue of the Times

UK's Guantanamo "Exiles" - Jan. 1 issue of the Times

The article revolves around the issue of what to do with Guantanamo detainees when Obama’s team follows through on its promise to close the prison camp. According to the article, the Obama administration plans to place 30-80 of the “most dangerous” suspects on trial in the U.S.  But it’s unknown what will happen to the rest of the 248 detainees still in Guantanamo. While Obama has made no formal request to other countries asking for help dealing with the detainees, apparently his staff “cabled 100 countries for help in closing Guantanamo.” Countries like Britain that have spoken out against the prison have some strong incentives to help the new president.

A couple reporters published articles last spring about how the US is “Stuck with Guantanamo” (that headline ran on three different pieces in the Economist, the BBC and CNN). Shuffling the detainees off to other countries is by no means a fix to the legal problems of the prison, but it might at least get some due process rolling and put the detainees in more humane conditions. If detainees are moved to the UK, they would likely be treated as asylum seekers. That’s important because it means they would receive health care benefits and 42 pounds a day — amenities that are causing some controversy about whether the UK should be putting up money to help out the quagmire.

What also caught my eye on the Times article was the headline for the jump: the front page piece ends with the direction to continue reading on page six, at “torture hellhole.”