US President Barack Obama’s deadline to close the notorious prison camp at the illegally occupied Guantanamo Bay in Cuba has come and gone but there appears no immediate prospect that he would be able to do so anytime soon. Amid much media hype, Obama had announced immediately after his inaugural address on January 21, 2009 that the notorious prison camp would be closed within one year signing an executive order to initiate the process. Apologists now say he is locked in protracted battle with his detractors who have raised political, legal and security concerns frustrating his efforts.
No less serious is the refusal of Congress to authorise funding for the prison or prisons on US mainland where detainees are to be transferred or even the authority to transfer those to be held indefinitely. The US claims that of the more than 200 detainees still left at Guantanamo Bay, some 50 will neither be charged with any specific crime nor released because they are “too dangerous”. The reason why they cannot be charged is because no conviction can be secured in a court of law, civil or military. Thus, the US continues to operate above every law, its own and international. One would be hard-pressed to find a more accurate definition of an outlaw.
Human rights advocates have condemned Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo within a year as promised, as well as his reliance on indefinite detention, a throwback to the policy devised by his predecessor George W. Bush that they deem unconstitutional. “There is no statutory regime in America that allows us to hold people without charge or trial indefinitely,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Guantanamo is a brutal place, much like Nazi concentration camps complete with barbed wire and concrete barriers. “No Photography” signs are everywhere; the Saudis would be proud. Pilgrims to the desert kingdom are confronted by such signs upon arrival at Jeddah airport. Even while herded into windowless rooms, there are signs prohibiting photography. The Saudi analogy, however, ends there; once out of the terminal’s windowless rooms, pilgrims can go about their business. Not so at Guantanamo, nicknamed Gitmo. True, there is a McDonald’s hamburger joint as well as a Subway fast food outlet. No place where there are Americans can be complete without a Big Mac but lest someone thinks this is for prisoners, they should think again.
“It is an ugly place — ugly to many Americans and to most of the world,” Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post on February 12, 2010. “By 2005, President George W. Bush wanted to close the Guantanamo prison. It had become a symbol of abuses that had little to do with the facility itself. But the administration’s internal policy debate became deadlocked over the question: what to do with the detainees? Without a clear answer, Bush refused to set an arbitrary deadline to shutter Guantanamo. Complexity had defeated symbolism,” according to Gerson.
We are now into the Obama era but little has changed. When a country embarks on a course of such blatant abuse of law and makes its own rules as it goes along, it is bound to come up against complex situations that are both easy and extremely difficult to resolve. Easy because the US can do the right thing and admit that it is guilty of egregious wrongs against innocent people and let them go, but difficult if it clings to the notion that the US can do no wrong. The farce of the war on terror must end if Obama wants to improve the US’s tarnished image globally. Deeds, not words, will change global perceptions.
Horrible crimes have been perpetrated against detainees at Gitmo and elsewhere. These include holding them in extremely stressful positions such as suspending them from ceiling by tying their wrists in handcuffs for prolonged periods; keeping them standing for days on end; sleep deprivation for extended periods (a regime to which Canadian citizen Omar Khadr was subjected for 21 days); setting dogs upon them, and of course, waterboarding. There are different holding cells at Gitmo. Those that cooperate with their jailers are housed in a communal set up where they can interact with others; the more difficult, or those considered “dangerous” by the US, are kept in solitary confinement. The US also maintains a large number of black sites in other countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and many East European countries that do not mind torturing people if their regimes are paid well for such “services.”
Upon assuming office, Obama set up a task force to review the status of Guantanamo prisoners. The task force comprised officials from the departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security and Justice, as well as agencies such as the CIA and the FBI. On January 22, 2010, the task force recommended that detainees be divided into three main groups: about 35 should be prosecuted in federal or military courts; at least 110 can be released, either immediately or eventually; and the nearly 50 must be detained without trial. The process for the 110 cleared for release because they are innocent has not commenced. And what about the 50 or so who are to be held indefinitely without trial?
American officials argue that detaining terrorism suspects under Congress’s authorization of the use of force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban is legal and that each detainee has the right to challenge his incarceration in habeas corpus proceedings in federal court. Regardless of one’s opinion of the Taliban, they are a resistance group struggling to rid their country of foreign occupiers. Under no stretch of the imagination can they be labelled as terrorists. Besides, the Taliban have not attacked the US; American troops are occupying their country and brutalising their people.
As for al-Qaeda, there was no such outfit until the Americans came on the scene. People familiar with the Afghan resistance and the Arab volunteers that came to help them never heard of the name al-Qaeda. There was an organization called Maktab al-Khidmat in Peshawar, established by Abdullah Azzam. This organization facilitated the arrival and transit of Arab volunteers to Afghanistan. It was only in January 2001 that Osama bin Laden finally accepted the name al-Qaeda when he discovered that it had gained an international profile, thanks to American propaganda. Thus, al-Qaeda has now become the pretext to justify America’s continued military attacks against other countries. Any person or group opposed to US military aggression is immediately branded either al-Qaeda or its affiliate. Such allegation then justifies every conceivable US crime.
In recent weeks, there has been much talk about holding the trial of Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in a federal court in Lower Manhattan, New York. When it was first announced last November, New York officials welcomed the decision and indulged in much chest thumping about “US adherence to the rule of law” but since then, they have had second thoughts citing security concerns. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad was waterboarded 183 times, at times three or four times daily. Stripped of its sanitized name, waterboarding involves tying an individual on a gurney with the head kept low. A cloth is placed over his nose and mouth and water poured over him creating a horrible sensation of drowning. A person subjected to such treatment 183 times would confess to anything under the Sun.
Far from adhering to the rule of law, American officials now claim that trying Khalid Shaikh Muhammad in New York would provide him a platform for propaganda. Having tortured him mercilessly, it is clear that Americans are afraid his statements in court would expose their own criminal behaviour. Where he would be tried is now in limbo although Obama has said many detainees would be tried under the discredited military tribunals. These have roundly been denounced by human rights lawyers as well as others. They are a travesty of justice and do not meet even the minimum required for a fair trial.
Aware that Gitmo will eventually be shut down, the Americans have upgraded Bagram prison in Afghanistan where detainees are shipped and where they are not only out of sight but will also become out of mind. Even under Obama, America is simply not capable of doing the right thing. If Americans really want to know why the world hates them, they need look no further than the mirror on the wall.