By Andy Worthington
Ten years and seven months after the Bush administration's "war on terror" prison opened at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, it is less clear than it was under George W. Bush that the prison is a moral, legal and ethical abomination, a place where men bought for bounty payments are held, and men picked up on the basis of deeply flawed intelligence, and others labeled as terrorists when they were nothing more than soldiers fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in an inter-Muslim civil war that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks or any other acts of international terrorism.
It is worth remembering that, of the 168 men still held, only around three dozen were allegedly involved in terrorism -- and even those claims require scrutiny, as they include Omar Khadr, the Canadian former child prisoner obliged to admit that he committed war crimes by engaging in military conflict with U.S. forces, which, to right-minded people, is a permanent mark of shame against Barack Obama. They also include the kind of low-level prisoners already freed after trials -- the Australian David Hicks; Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden; and Ibrahim al-Qosi, released last month, a cook in an al-Qaeda compound, and also an occasional driver for bin Laden. Only a handful of the men still held are actually regarded as dangerous international terrorists.
Under President Bush, when international criticism began to sting -- primarily during his second term in office -- 532 prisoners were released. It was clear that the process was political, and the subtext, though never admitted publicly, was also clear -- that Guantánamo was a huge, embarrassing mistake.
However, since President Obama came to power, a political fiasco has turned into a deeply cynical game of political football. The President promised to close Guantánamo within a year of taking office, and convened an interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force to examine the cases of the 242 men held at the time his Presidency began, to provide recommendations about who should be tried and who should be released -- and, it turned out, who his advisers believed should continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial. However, he failed to follow up with swift and decisive action, and Republicans, and members of his own party, soon turned against him, with the most cynical law-makers -- and their cheerleaders in the media -- reviving the myth that Guantánamo is full of terrorists, and passing legislation intended to prevent the President from ever closing the prison.
87 of the remaining prisoners were cleared for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, consisting of sober career officials and lawyers and other experts from the main government departments and from the intelligence agencies. However, primarily as a result of Congressional obstructions, just five prisoners have been released in the last two years -- a shocking statistic that ought to alarm anyone who believes that Guantánamo must be closed, as it remains a stain on America's belief in justice, and provides a thoroughly damaging demonstration of how the Bush administration managed to create a third category of prisoner -- neither criminal suspects nor prisoners of war, but "enemy combatants," who can be held without any rights whatsoever, at the whim of the government, possibly for the rest of their lives.
This is wrong, however you look at it, but the President has yet to take advantage of a waiver included in much-criticized legislation passed at the end of last year -- the National Defense Authorization Act, with its alarming proposal for the mandatory military custody of terror suspects seized in the future, which was clearly inspired by the example set at Guantánamo -- which allows him to bypass Congress and release prisoners if he believes that doing so is in the interests of national security.
According to the cynical supporters of Guantánamo, who relentlessly try to strike fear into the hearts of their fellow citizens, the interests national security demand that none of the 168 men still in Guantánamo should be released, even though over half of them have been cleared for release. The demands are insulting to those 87 men, and counter-productive in general, as Guantánamo remains a damaging global beacon of injustice, and only its closure will make America safer.
Of the 87 men cleared for release but still held, one who should be released immediately is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, whose story we told here. Cleared for release under President Bush in 2007, and by President Obama's Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2009, his case would be a useful opportunity for President Obama to use his waiver, as no lawmaker could realistically argue that their restrictions on releasing prisoners to countries regarded as dangerous could apply to the U.K., America's closest ally in the "war on terror."
Shaker Aamer's supporters in the U.K. have recently put together a new website, which we urge you to visit, and we remain committed to the two petitions in support of his release from Guantánamo -- a petition to the British government, which needs 100,000 signatures by next April to be eligible for debate in Parliament, and an international petition, to be delivered to the U.S. and U.K. government when it reaches 10,000 signatures.
Shaker Aamer has a long-standing complaint against the British government, alleging that British agents were in the room when he was tortured by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, prior to his transfer to Guantánamo in February 2002. A judge ruled in his favor in December 2009, ordering the British government to release whatever information they possessed to his U.S. lawyers, to help them put pressure on the Obama administration to clear Shaker for release. This unprecedented move led to his case being submitted to the Metropolitan Police, to investigate possible wrongdoing by the security services. Last week, ITV News announced that a a joint Crown Prosecution Service and Metropolitan Police panel had assessed twelve cases, and had referred three to the Metropolitan Police for further investigation, including Shaker's, based on specific allegations that "British officials visited him, or asked questions, while aware that he was being tortured."
As ITV News noted, the decision "could lead British detectives to ask for U.S. government permission to interview Shaker Aamer at Guantánamo Bay." That is one option, but another -- far more practical -- would be for detectives to interview Shaker at home, in London, with his British wife and his four British children.
We encourage President Obama to do the right thing, and to release Shaker Aamer now.