By Andy Worthington, May 9, 2013
As the prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo begins its fourth month, we at "Close Guantánamo" are concerned that men will die unless President Obama follows up on his fine words last week with actions to match his understanding of why the prison's continued existence is so wrong. As he said, it is "critical for us to understand that Guantánamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”
To close Guantánamo, as we have been urging, the President needs to do three particular things:
1) To appoint a high-level official to deal specifically with the prison's closure;
2) To drop his ban on releasing the Yemenis who make up two-thirds of the 86 prisoners cleared for release by the President's own inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which he imposed in January 2010 after the arrest of the Yemen-trained would-be plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab;
3) Either to tackle Congress regarding the imposition of obstacles preventing the release of prisoners, or to use the waiver in the legislation (the National Defense Authorization Act) that allows him to bypass Congress if he regards it as being in America's best interests.
Bringing the appalling injustice of Guantánamo to an end is, we believe, very much in America's best interests.
In reviewing the current situation, we are encouraged that the petition to President Obama, calling for the closure of Guantánamo, which was launched just last week by our colleague Col. Morris Davis, has already secured over 180,000 signatures. That petition specifically asks the President to address the pressing issues we have also identified, namely:
1) Direct Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel to use his authority to issue the certifications or national security waivers required by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA 2013) to effect transfers from Guantánamo.
2) Appoint an individual within your Administration to lead the effort to close Guantánamo.
3) Announce a concrete and specific plan to close the facility. As a first step and a clear signal that this is the beginning of a new chapter in Guantánamo’s legacy, you should immediately release Shaker Aamer and Djamel Ameziane.
With regard to the waivers, we believe that what is also required is for President Obama to specifically drop the ban he imposed in January 2010 on releasing the cleared Yemenis prisoners, who, as a result, are indefinitely detained on the basis of their nationality alone, a sorry excuse for justice if ever there was one.
We are greatly encouraged that, two weeks ago, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who also chairs of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote a letter to President Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, in which she specifically called for renewed action to secure the release of the 86 cleared prisoners, and specifically referred to the need to remove the obstacle preventing the release of the 56 cleared Yemenis -- the President 's own ban.
In her letter, Sen, Feinstein wrote:
I write to ask that the Administration renew its efforts to transfer out the 86 detainees at Guantánamo Bay who were cleared for transfer by the Executive Branch’s interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force over three years ago.
As you know, despite commendable efforts across the Executive Branch over the past four years to transfer or prosecute most of the remaining 166 detainees, progress has largely stalled on closing the Guantánamo facility. The fact that so many detainees have now been held at Guantánamo for over a decade and their belief that there is still no end in sight for them is a reason there is a growing problem of more and more detainees on a hunger strike. This week, monitors from the International Committee of the Red Cross who travelled to Guantánamo recently told my staff that the level of desperation among the detainees is “unprecedented” in their view.
I would like to ask that the Administration review the status of the 86 detainees who were cleared for transfer in the past and let me know if there are suitable places to continue to hold or resettle these detainees either in their home countries or third countries.
Part of this review will require reassessing the security situation on the ground in Yemen because is my understanding that 56 of the 86 detainees cleared for transfer are Yemeni. After the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009, then Vice Chairman “Kit” Bond and I wrote to the President asking him to halt transfers of Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo “until the situation in Yemen is stabilized.” Although AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] still has a strong presence in Yemen, I believe it would be prudent to re-visit the decision to halt transfers to Yemen and assess whether President Hadi’s government, with appropriate assistance, would be able to securely hold detainees in Sana’a. Do you believe that we can work with Yemen develop an appropriate framework for the return of all 56 Yemenis previously recommended for transfer?
If so, I would like to offer my assistance to help the Administration transition each of the 86 “cleared” detainees.
Sen. Feinstein also noted that "efforts to transfer these 86 detainees can only be successful if the Administration has someone in charge of resettlement of detainees," and urged the Administration to appoint a senior official "with the specific responsibility to achieve the conditions necessary to close Guantánamo," but it is her proposal regarding the cleared prisoners -- and specifically the Yemenis -- that has a particular resonance, as it has been almost a taboo subject since the ban was first imposed in January 2010.
As the New York Times noted in its report on Sen. Feinstein's letter, Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, "has been a strong foe of Al-Qaeda since taking office in 2012," and Feinstein's stance was also praised by NGOs including Human Rights First.
Several media outlets followed up on Sen. Feinstein's letter with useful reports from Yemen. Reuters, for example, focused on the story of Abdulrahman al-Shabati (identified in Guantanamo as Abdul Rahman Muhammad, ISN 224), who was cleared for release under President Bush in January 2007, and again under President Obama in 2009. He was just 18 years old when he was seized in Pakistan in December 201, where, he said, he had traveled to study.
Reuters reported that his daughter Awdah "has never seen her father" except "via video link." She was born after he was seized and sent to Guantánamo. He is now one of the 100 to 130 prisoners involved in the hunger strike. His brother Mohammed, a Yemeni Defense Ministry employee, said, "The last time we spoke to him was eight days ago. He looked thinner, his health seems to have deteriorated since we last saw him." He added that Awdah, "speaking to her father from a Red Cross office in the capital Sanaa, asked him about his health then burst into tears."
His brother added that it was impossible for the family to get a straight story about him. "The Yemeni government says the U.S. government does not want to hand them over and the Americans say Yemen does not want to take them," he said, adding, "We no longer believe anyone."
Reuters' reporter also spoke to Bandar al-Qatta'a about his brother Mansour (ISN 566, also cleared for release). He said that his brother "had joined the hunger strike because he lost hope of being freed after a decade in jail without trial," as Reuters put it. In his own words, Bandar, "a Saudi-born Yemeni who campaigns for the inmates," said, "We hope human conscience will move to help us secure their release. Those people have never been convicted of any crime."
Yemeni government officials told Reuters that "talks with the U.S. government over the fate of the prisoners are making progress." Rajeh Badi, an aide to Yemeni Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa, said that "work was underway on an $11 million centre to hold the prisoners while they undergo a rehabilitation program," as Reuters put it. Following up on reports that the U.S. had wanted Yemenis to be sent to Qatar or Saudi Arabia, he said, "We object to sending Yemeni prisoners anywhere but to their home country. The government will be responsible for caring for them and rehabilitating them."
Following Reuters' report, McClatchy also spoke to Abdulrahman al-Shabati’s family, noting that his parents had recently "traveled from their home 60 miles outside Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, to protest outside the U.S. Embassy."
McClatchy also interviewed Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s minister of human rights, who "cast the ongoing hunger strike as the catalyst for seeking to visit Guantánamo," but also spoke of the necessity for the prison to be closed, and for President Obama to "either send the detainees home or have them face criminal charges," as McClatchy put it. As she said, “For them to spend such a long time without trial is simply lawless." She added, “At the very least, we want the release of the detainees who have been cleared -- those who have already been determined to present no threat to the U.S.”
Mashhour also said that her government was "aware that the repatriation of detainees would ultimately prove a massive undertaking, requiring a large-scale rehabilitation program, aimed at reintegrating the returnees into Yemeni society," adding that "such a program also would have to reckon with any psychological effects of a decade-long imprisonment," as Reuters described it. As Mashhour herself described it, “Of course we will need money, we will need logistical support; of course we are committed to doing what’s necessary. But also, the American government has a duty to support us.”
McClatchy also noted that Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, "who generally enjoys close relations with the United States," had "directed rare criticism at the Obama administration."
The President 's words were powerful. In a TV interview, he said, “We believe that keeping someone in prison for over 10 years without due process is clear-cut tyranny. The United States is fond of talking democracy and human rights. But when we were discussing the prisoner issue with the American attorney general, he had nothing to say.”
For their part, Shabati’s family said that "they just want to see him back in Yemen." His mother said, “No one can understand the suffering we’ve felt. We know we’ll be pained by the wounds from this injustice for the rest of our lives.”
In the latest news, the Miami Herald reported that, despite President Obama's speech last week, officials made it clear that his January 2010 moratorium on releasing Yemenis was still in place. The State Department acknowledged that 26 of the Yemenis still at Guantánamo had been cleared for release, and that 30 others could be released if the government could take “appropriate measures to reduce the risks associated with their return.”
In another report, the Miami Herald explained that, last Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, "The moratorium remains in place.”
A State Department official, speaking anonymously, expanded on Carney's words, explaining that "work on resettling Guantánamo detainees continued even after the department reassigned [Daniel] Fried," President Obama's former envoy on Guantánamo, whose office was closed at the start of the year. The official said that "a small number of staff members still work solely on Guantánamo issues, pulling experts as needed from other departments for 'a broader enterprise.'" He added that President Obama’s "renewed focus" on the prison "could lead to a more robust operation -- and soon," as the Miami Herald described it.
“There is high-level attention to this issue and, given that focus, it would be reasonable to assume someone would be put in the position in the very near future,” the official said, noting that, under Fried, 71 prisoners were freed in 28 different countries, including 42 who were rehoused in third countries, because it was unsafe for them to return home. The official conceded that "repatriation to Yemen remains difficult because of the country’s unstable security environment," although he added that the government does “recognize and is encouraged by the progress that’s been made by Yemen to address its security situation." Speaking of the moratorium, he said, “We’re continually reviewing it.”
That is not enough, of course, as the release of the cleared Yemenis is essential if there is to be any meaningful movement towards closing Guantánamo. Last Wednesday, Jay Carney told reporters, “We have to work with Congress and try to convince members of Congress that the overriding interest here, in terms of our national security, as well as our budget, is to close Guantánamo Bay."
This may be the case, but if Congress is unwilling to assist the President, he must not be afraid to use his waiver -- and he must not be afraid to release the Yemenis that his own task force recommended for release back in 2009. The time for inertia is over.