By Andy Worthington, January 16, 2014
Last Saturday, in Washington D.C., Andy Worthington and Tom Wilner, the co-founders of the "Close Guantánamo" campaign, met outside the White House, in torrential rain, to call on President Obama to fulfill his 2009 promise to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Andy and Tom spoke about the unrelenting need to close Guantánamo along with speakers from other groups involved in the coalition that, every year, marks the anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo (on January 11, 2002) with speeches outside the White House and other events -- including Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and Witness Against Torture.
Below is a 10-minute video of the day's events put together by Ellen Davidson, which not only features clips of speeches outside the White House (including Andy and Tom), but also the subsequent march to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where activists with Witness Against Torture staged a creative and powerful occupation of the museum, under the clever slogan, "Make Guantánamo History."
The occupation involved the unfurling of banners, and singing, in the main atrium, and also involved the creation of living tableaux of hooded protestors to contrast with fixed exhibits designed to illuminate other, more generally accepted aspects of American history. This was a very powerful event, and I thank the Witness Against Torture activists for undertaking it, and the museum authorities for not reacting in a heavy-handed manner, and allowing the educational intervention to last for several hours.
In that time, many museum visitors, I am sure, received an education about the realities of Guantánamo that they have not found elsewhere, as activists explained to them some of the many hard truths about the prison's monstrous and unacceptable 12-year existence, at the start of its 13th year of operations.
One year ago, the Guantánamo situation was dire, after Congress raised obstacles to the release of prisoners, and President Obama refused to spend political capital overcoming these obstacles, even though he had the power to do so. Finally, the prisoners, in response to the correct conclusion that they had been abandoned by all three branches of the US government, embarked on a massive, prison-wide hunger strike to raise awareness of their plight, and, when national and international outrage ensued, President Obama promised to act -- in part by resuming the release of prisoners.
Eleven men were released from Guantánamo between August and December 2013, compared to just five men in the preceding three years, but 155 men are still held, and almost half of them -- 76 men in total -- had their release from the prison approved in January 2010 by a high-level, inter-agency task force that President Obama appointed when he took office.
These men must all be released as soon as possible, and particular action is needed by President Obama to release the Yemenis who make up 55 of these 76 men, and who have been subjected to a blanket ban on their release -- based on their nationality alone -- since a failed airline bomb plot in December 2009, which was apparently hatched in Yemen.
What is also needed inside the administration is a determination to push forward with the prison's complete closure. For this, a ban, imposed by Congress, on bringing prisoners to the US mainland for any reason must be overcome, so that the small number of men accused of crimes -- of international terrorism, for example -- can be tried in federal courts. The others -- currently 70 men held deliberately without charge or trial -- must have their cases reviewed as swiftly as possible, and only recommended for ongoing detention if a case can be made for prosecuting them.
This review process was meant to begin in 2011, when President Obama issued an alarming executive order authorizing ongoing detention without charge or trial for some of the men, who, in the task force's opinion, were too dangerous to release, even though it was conceded that insufficient evidence exists to put them on trial. However, the process did not begin, shamefully, until November 2013. Just one prisoner has had his case reviewed to date, and he won a recommendation for his release just last week, although in practical terms all that means is that he joins the queue of 76 other men cleared for release but still held -- an absurd situation that ought to add even more urgency to the need for swift action in finally releasing the Yemenis.