Recent hunger strikes by individuals detained at Guantanamo Bay have brought the institution and its practices to the attention of the public eye. Currently 84 of the 166 prisoners are refusing meals. Lawyers representing the inmates say that these increased strikes are a direct result of the “regressive practices in the prison taking place in recent months.” These regressive practices include searches of the Korans (considered religious desecration). Additionally, inmates feel an increased sense of desperation that Guantanamo will never be shutdown and they will never face fair trial or the opportunity for release.
Three years ago, a task force composed of the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Department of State, and Department of Homeland Security, cleared 86 detainees for release to their home countries or other third party nations. According to this task force, in order to be eligible for release, the detainee must “not pose an identifiable threat to the national security of the United States.”
This leaves many inmates classified as “too dangerous to release.” However, 45 prisoners are currently listed as “too difficult to prosecute.” This is a result of another problem faced by the US. Government. Many of the cases against these prisoners do not possess a sufficient amount of incriminating evidence. Therefore, the United States has no interest in putting them on trial because there is a great chance that they will be released. These are the prisoners classified as “too difficult to prosecute” and they are now indefinitely caught in a legal limbo.
34 other prisoners are due to be prosecuted but only 6 face formal charges.
In a democratic radio debate broadcast by NPR on Dec. 13, 2007, Obama said, “Now, what we need to do [to reach Muslims] is we need to close Guantanamo. We need to restore habeas corpus. We need to send a strong signal that we are going to talk directly to not just our friends but also to our enemies.” Obama’s promise to closing Guantanamo became a large platform from which he based his campaign. Shortly after winning the 2008 Presidential election, he stated on a November 16th 60 Minutes interview that, “I have said repeatedly that I will close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that.”
Soon after his inauguration, President Obama began taking the steps necessary to ensuring Guantanamo’s closure. On January 22, 2009, Obama signed the executive order mandating the closure of the Guantanamo detention center as well as other CIA-operated secret prisons within one year. The order required the US government to review the cases of the 245 detainees to determine whether they should be transferred, prosecuted, or dealt with by other lawful means.
Shortly after, though, progress in closing the center began to look less promising. The President extended the yearlong period by six month. Then, the House Armed Services Committee rejected the option of transferring detainees to a detention center in the United States. The Committee cited the lack of a “thorough and comprehensive plan that outlines the merits, costs, and risks associated.”
On March 7, 2011, Obama signed an executive order that formally allowed for indefinite detention at Guantanamo. This order allowed for detainees to challenge their designation, but only every three years.
In April of 2011, 9/11 architect Khalid Sheik Mohammad was set to go on trial, along with his co-conspirators, in a Manhattan federal court. This possible prosecution would have been the vanguard of a push to prosecute Gitmo detainees in US federal courts. However, the case fell apart when the City of New York brought up many concerns regarding security costs and possible civilian disruption.
Another strike against the possibility of using federal courts occurred after one detainee tried in the United States was acquitted of 284 out of 285 counts, including every murder charge. This has caused many government officials to fear excessively lenient sentences given to those tried in the federal court system.
It is hard to argue that habeas corpus has been restored. Interviews with Administration officials and members of Congress reveal that The White House did not coordinate well enough nor did they invest enough political capital to push the policy. Sadly, the periodic reviews ordered by the March 7, 2011 executive order have not begun yet at all.
Wikileaks leaked additional details with regard to the inmates at Guantanamo Bay in early 2011. The information documents children, the elderly, and those with mental illnesses as currently detained inside the US facilities. The government also claims to have reliable testimony from inmates that were mistreated and tortured. Finally, the government actually noted in these documents that many of the released detainees were actually designated as “high risk” by authorities.
After the creation of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Obama now has the executive power to transfer 86 of the Guantanamo detainees. He has yet to take any action, though. As a result, human rights organizations have repeatedly asked for access to monitor conditions but they have been categorically denied.
Closing down Guantanamo, as President Obama himself argued, is a great way for the United States to lead the world by example. In not taking action to protect the rights of the detainees, the United States has substantially less leverage in accusing other nations of human rights violations. It is time to end this hypocrisy and close this difficult chapter of American history by refocusing on the real issue at hand and reviewing all Guantanamo inmates for release or fair trial.
Additional resources worth checking out:
Letter by numerous retired Generals and Admirals calling for Obama to transfer detainees:
Final Report by the Guantanamo Review Task Force:
Testimony by current inmate with details on being force-fed:
Kevin Wu ’16