By Andy Worthington, September 23, 2014
On Guantánamo, the news has largely dried up in recent weeks, which is not reassuring for the 79 men -- out of the 149 men still held -- who have had their release approved but are still held. 75 of these men were recommended for release in 2009 by President Obama's Guantánamo Review Task Force, and four others were recommended for release this year by Periodic Review Boards, established to review the cases of the majority of the men who were not cleared for release by the task force.
Since last May, when President Obama promised to resume releasing prisoners -- after a period of nearly three years when only five men were released -- 17 men have been released, which is obviously progress of sorts. The drought of releases from 2010 to 2013 was because of obstacles raised by Congress and the president's refusal to use a waiver in the legislation to bypass Congress, but although it is reassuring that 17 men have been freed, the last of those releases was at the end of May, and campaigners for the closure of Guantánamo can be forgiven for wondering when the next prisoner will be released, especially as that last prisoner release -- six Taliban leaders in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the sole U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan -- attracted such cynical and hysterical opposition.
According to reports in May, six of the cleared prisoners, from Syria, Palestine and Tunisia -- all men who cannot be safely repatriated -- were offered new homes in Uruguay after President Mujica responded positively to a request for assistance from the U.S.
At the start of September, the New York Times reported that the Uruguay deal had been postponed, but a Uruguayan spokesperson responded by stating that the agreement was still on, but no date had yet been set.
It is, of course, hugely disappointing that the release of prisoners to Uruguay has not yet happened, and unfortunately no other countries currently seem to be in line to take in prisoners. The New York Times reported that news of the Uruguay deal had "inspired similar talks with Brazil, Chile and Colombia," according to regional news reports. In recent weeks, it has been reported that Chile is evaluating a request to accept prisoners, and that the Peruvian government had also been doing the same, but had turned down the request.
As the New York Times also put it, "as many as 14 other releases could also happen by the end of the year if they get approved," according to officials with knowledge of deliberations, including deals "to repatriate four Afghans and a Mauritanian," which were completed in March, but have not previously been reported. I mentioned the four Afghans here, and reported the story of the Mauritanian, Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, last year.
On September 11, AFP mentioned Aziz in an article noting how "dozens of Guantánamo detainees ought to have sight of freedom, but hard-won deals for their release are languishing awaiting a final Pentagon signature," essentially because of the obstacles raised by Congress. As AFP also reported, sources within the administration said that "many of the new transfer deals had won a green light from five of the six government agencies involved." The stumbling block is defense secretary Chuck Hagel, who "has to give final approval to every transfer," and has been accused of dragging his feet.
Pentagon sources denied that, "saying every case needed proper and thorough review to ensure the right conditions are in place," and in May Hagel himself explained his reticence.
In May, the White House sent Chuck Hagel a memo "saying he should accept more than ‘zero risk’" in approving prisoner transfers "because allowing the prison to remain open raised risks, too." However, referring to the certification that must be made prior to any prisoner release, Hagel told the Times at the time, "My name is going on that document. That’s a big responsibility."
In its mention of Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, AFP noted how he "is eager to be reunited with his wife, who was pregnant when he was detained, and the young son he has never met," according to his lawyer, Anna Holland Edwards, who said there are only "so many formative years left and he wants to spend those years with his son," adding, "He often talks not about living in Guantánamo, but of living in a grave." She also said that, in addition to his wife and son, there is "an apartment, a job and a social network awaiting Aziz whenever he finally flies back to Mauritania."
Here at "Close Guantánamo," we remain convinced that, every day the prison at Guantánamo Bay remains open, it has a corrosive effect on America's belief that it is a nation that upholds the rule of law, and also continues to create enemies abroad.
Releasing prisoners will not bring this shame and danger to an end on its own; for that, the prison must finally be closed and those accused of crimes tried in an internationally recognized forum, but it remains imperative that men approved for transfer out of the prison are released as soon as possible. Otherwise, it appears that America pretends to have reviews to decide whether to hold or release prisoners, but then fails to let them go if they are approved for release.
Call the White House and ask President Obama to release the Yemenis cleared for release. Call 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 or submit a comment online.
Call the Department of Defense and ask Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to issue certifications for other cleared prisoners: 703-571-3343.