After years of delay, nearly 150 inmates still held by the United States at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba may have improved hopes of getting released before they die. Human-rights groups are calling for the release process to accelerate, expressing gratitude that the government has made even a little bit of progress, while demanding prosecution of those who approved the use of torture against the detainees held at Guantanamo.
This month marks 12 years since the first inmates arrived there, and nearly five years since President Barack Obama signed an executive order calling for its closure. But the prison is still operating, holding people who were captured overseas and were at one time suspected of some sort of terrorist intention or action against the United States.
“Most of the people at Guantanamo have never been charged, let alone convicted, with any crime,” says Zeke Johnson, director of the security and human rights program at Amnesty International’s US headquarters in New York.
Of the 155 inmates still there, 77 have been cleared by US authorities for release — in some cases the clearance happened many years ago — but have not yet been transferred out of the camp. Most of those are Yemenis whose home country is very unstable, which leads US officials to fear they would return to terrorist activities if they were sent there.
Another American fear has also delayed releases: the cruelly ironic concern that, if released, some of the inmates would be treated inhumanely upon their return home. So, the US rationale has been that it is somehow better to keep them in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day for years on end than to potentially risk their safety elsewhere.
In March 2011, Obama set up a Periodic Review Board that was to look at the cases of inmates who had not been previously cleared for release; that board issued its first decision last week, declaring that a former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden was no longer a threat to the United States, and could therefore be released — just as soon as a suitable country was found to accept him. Unfortunately, the man, Mahmoud Abd Al Aziz Al Mujahid is Yemeni, so he may not be going anywhere anytime soon.
There are 70 other inmates whose cases will be reviewed in the coming months, though again, their chances of actual release are questionable. But under the latest National Defense Reauthorization Act, signed into law last month, Obama has greater flexibility to determine who can be released. “He really needs to pick up the pace,” Johnson says, to bring inmates to a fair trial in federal court or to release them.
The president’s ability to do that remains limited, though; Congress continues to block any efforts to bring detainees to the US, even for further detention and trial.
Meanwhile, six men are facing trial under the military commission system created by Obama in 2009; that system has been criticized for failing to uphold international standards of fair and open trials.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture mobilized late last week to call once again for the closing of Guantanamo, and to encourage Obama to step up his efforts under his new powers.
Amnesty International (which in 2008 brought a replica of a Guantanamo cell to Portland; see “A Night in Guantanamo,” by Jeff Inglis, June 20, 2008) made similar statements, and issued a six-page report condemning the existence of the prison and the American treatment of its inmates as counter to international law and human-rights standards, including those to which the United States holds other countries.
The report also called for prosecutions of those who authorized and conducted torture against Guantanamo inmates; despite admissions that officials as high as President George W. Bush authorized torture, no Americans have been charged with crimes in connection with the treatment of inmates there.