When the "Close Guantánamo" website was established a month ago, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, we had two aims -- to push for the closure of the prison, particularly by focusing on the injustice of holding 89 prisoners cleared for release, out of 171 prisoners in total; and to dispel the still prevalent myths about the prisoners being "the worst of the worst," by telling their stories.
These are still our intentions, but after a month of campaigning for the closure of the prison we are now about to start telling the prisoners' stories, to raise awareness of the particular injustice of continuing to hold men at Guantánamo who have been cleared for release.
To understand who these 89 men are, it is necessary to return to the dying days of the Bush administration, and to understand that around 60 prisoners had been cleared for release by military review boards, but had not been freed by the time George W. Bush left office. In many cases, this was because it was unsafe to return them to their home countries, where they faced the risk of torture -- countries that included Algeria, China, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan.
When President Obama took office in January 2009 and immediately issued an executive order promising to close Guantánamo within a year, he established an interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which included senior intelligence and law enforcement officials, who reviewed the cases of all the men still held (240 at the time), and concluded that the government had no interest in indefinitely detaining, or putting on trial, 156 of those 240 prisoners.
126 of these men were recommended for immediate release -- or were "approved for transfer," to use the administration's careful wording -- and 30 others, all Yemenis, were approved for "conditional detention," a category invented by the Task Force, meaning that their release was dependent on a perceived improvement in the security situation in Yemen.
Since President Obama took office, he has released 67 of these cleared prisoners, and 40 of them were resettled in 16 countries that were not their home countries -- Albania, Belgium, Bermuda, Bulgaria, Cape Verde, France, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Palau, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland.
However, 89 remain. New efforts must be made to release those who can be released to their home countries, and to secure third countries for those who cannot be safely repatriated. Most can be released to their home countries, and third countries are willing to accept the rest.
28 of these men are Yemenis (some of whom have been cleared for release since 2004, when they were cleared by military review boards under President Bush), and there are also the 30 Yemenis held in "conditional detention." In January 2010, President Obama issued a moratorium prohibiting the release of any Yemeni, after it was discovered that a Nigerian would-be plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen. This blanket prohibition remains unacceptable as a permanent policy, however, because it constitutes guilt by nationality, and it is time for new negotiations to be opened up to secure the release of these men.
Until recently, restrictions made by Congress had prevented the release of any prisoners since January 2011, but the newly passed national Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes a provision that allows the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to waive the Congressional restrictions at their discretion.
This is the way forward for men unjustly held despite being cleared for release, and in the weeks to come we will be profiling some of these men and telling their stories, beginning with the Uighurs (Muslims from China's Xinjiang province), who remain held despite having their release ordered by a U.S. judge in October 2008, and following up with the story of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who could be released immediately if the political will existed in the U.S. and the U.K. Please sign up to receive notifications of these updates.
In addition, while we will concentrate on those people who have been cleared for release, they are not the only ones wrongly detained at Guantánamo. When the Guantánamo Review Task Force issued its recommendations, it advised that 46 of the remaining 171 men should be held indefinitely without charge or trial, because they were regarded as too dangerous to release even though there was insufficient evidence to put them on trial. More than ten years after the terrible attacks of 9/11, the United States has no business maintaining a Devil's Island to detain people it has no intent of charging and prosecuting. In the months to come, we will also be focusing on the stories of these men.