By Andy Worthington
On Friday, when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began, 168 men still held in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba must have wondered if their long ordeal will ever come to an end. Now held for as long as the First and Second World Wars combined, these men -- of whom only a handful are accused of any involvement with terrorism -- have become scapegoats, the victims of a cowardly administration, a cynical Congress and fearful judges.
How else are we to explain the presence of 87 men whose release was approved by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, appointed by President Obama himself, when he took office in January 2009 and promised to close Guantánamo within a year? Consisting of around 60 representatives of the relevant government departments and the intelligence services, the Task Force concluded in its final report, issued in January 2010, that, of the 168 men still held, 33 should be tried and 46 should be held indefinitely without charge or trial, while the other 87 should be released.
Here at "Close Guantánamo," we are rigorously and implacably opposed to President Obama's claim that it is acceptable to hold 46 men indefinitely without charge or trial, because it is fundamentally unjust to claim, as the administration does, that these 46 men represent a danger to the United States, even though there is insufficient evidence to put them on trial. What this means is that the so-called evidence is fatally tainted, produced through the use of torture, or other forms of coercion, and is therefore fundamentally unreliable.
However, while the struggle to overturn indefinite detention without charge or trial continues, the most urgent issue at Guantánamo -- and the one we have been publicizing since establishing this campaign in January this year, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison -- is the release of the 87 men whose ongoing and apparently indefinite detention makes a mockery of any claim that the United States believes in fairness and justice. As we demonstrated in our report last month, entitled, "Guantánamo Scandal: The 40 Prisoners Still Held But Cleared for Release At Least Five Years Ago," some of these men were cleared eight years ago, and yet they are still held.
Of the 87, 58 are Yemenis, whose release was prevented by President Obama in January 2010. After the discovery that the failed Christmas Day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen, the President announced a moratorium on releasing any Yemenis from Guantánamo, in response to criticism from opportunistic lawmakers and media pundits, whose goal, evidently, is to keep Guantánamo open forever. This moratorium still stands, even though it constitutes "guilt by nationality," and is an insult to the Yemeni people, to the men cleared for release, and, as I mentioned above, to any claim that the United States believes in fairness and justice.
Compounding this injustice, the release two weeks ago of Ibrahim al-Qosi, a Sudanese prisoner, can only have added to the sense of misery permeating Guantánamo this Ramadan. Al-Qosi, though not a major player in al-Qaeda by any means, had been an accountant for a company run by Osama bin Laden in Sudan in the 1990s, and had traveled to Afghanistan when bin Laden traveled there in 1996, where he worked as a driver for the al-Qaeda leader and also as a cook in a compound associated with al-Qaeda. Put forward for a trial by military commission at Guantánamo, he agreed to a plea deal in July 2010, under the terms of which he was to serve just two more years before being freed.
While it is appropriate that al-Qosi has been released, his freedom only makes it even more apparent that the ongoing imprisonment of the 87 cleared prisoners -- most of whom never even met Osama bin Laden, let alone working for him -- is unforgivable. What makes it even more intolerable is that, four years ago, many of them were already cleared for release when another driver for bin Laden, Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni, received a five and a half-month sentence after a trial by military commission, leading to his repatriation in November 2008 and his release from Yemeni custody in January 2009.
There are hints that change is coming. Just two weeks ago, for example, a Tunisian website, Tunisia Live, reported that the Tunisian Secretary of State for American and Asian Affairs, Hedi Ben Abbes -- a man who speaks perfect English -- explained that the five remaining Tunisians, out of the 12 who have been held throughout the prison's history, will hopefully "be brought home before the end of the year."
He explained that he had traveled to Guantánamo to meet them just a few weeks ago, when he had the opportunity to talk for three-quarters of an hour to each of them, and he stressed that the five men, "never given a trial or formally charged with a crime," were "cleared for release under the Bush administration." This was known, as was the fact that the five men faced no charges in Tunisia, because the new government had extended an amnesty to former political opponents of the former dictator, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown last January at the start of what is now regularly referred to as the Arab Spring.
However, what had not been heard before were details, from a representative of the new government, regarding the men's planned return. Hedi Ben Abbes explained, "There are no charges against them," adding that they "were in the wrong place at the wrong time," and would be returned in "a few months."
Speaking of his visit to meet the men, he stated, “Their situation has improved. They have a number of facilities, they watch TV, listen to the radio. During the interview, they were informed of what is happening in Tunisia. They were in good shape physically. Mentally they were really strong. They are believers, their strong beliefs have shielded them."
Tunisia Live also reported that Imed Hakeemy, the brother of Adel Hakeemy, one of the five, had said that Ben Abbes visited his family before making his trip to Guantánamo. “This is a huge step taken by the Tunisian government," he said, "but we do not want to be given false hope. Our mother’s health condition is a bit difficult. I hope she will get the chance to see him [Adel] before she dies."
Last month, as he prepared to leave his assignment in Tunis, Gordon Gray, the U.S. Ambassador, pointed out that the American government had been "reluctant to release the remaining detainees prior to 2011 for fear that they would be abused by the Ben Ali regime." This is not entirely true, as two men were released to Ben Ali's custody in 2007, and were subsequently convicted and imprisoned after show trials, leading a U.S. judge to block attempts to transfer a third. However, as Ambassador Gray noted, with the fall of Ben Ali, “Tunisia has improved in implementing policies that respect the human rights of its citizens, so hopefully the matter will be resolved.”
Here at "Close Guantánamo," that, of course, is our hope too, and we look forward to hearing more positive news from a place that, to those paying attention, has become synonymous with the loss of hope under President Obama. That must change, and to keep the pressure on, please write to your Senators and Representatives, if you are in the U.S., and, wherever you are, please join our campaign -- just an email is required to be added to our mailing list, and to join those demanding the closure of Guantánamo -- and please also ask your family and friends to join up as well, and to tell all their contacts.