Guantanamo: Global Symbol of State Terror

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A protester dressed as a Guantanamo prisoner demonstrates outside the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. (Photo: AFP - Saul Loeb)

By: Dima Charif

Published Monday, September 12, 2011

Hailed by Washington as the perfect place to punish those who engage in terror, Guantanamo Bay prison has become a universal symbol of unlawful detention, daily abuse, and fatal torture.

During his electoral campaign, US President Barack Obama often told audiences that he would be different from his predecessor, George W. Bush, particularly in the areas of human rights and civil liberties, which have been rolled back after the 9/11 attacks.

On 22 January 2009, two days after he moved into the White House, Obama asked his administration to take all necessary measures to stop the prosecution of detainees in Guantanamo for 120 days. He wanted their cases to be reviewed to determine which ones could go to trial. The next day, Obama signed an executive order to close down the prison before the end of the year. The administration even found a new location, a prison in Illinois, where the detainees can be moved and proceeded to purchase it from the state.

But two years later, with the detainees still in Guantanamo, Obama signed the defense department’s appropriation bill, which contained a clause preventing the transfer of the remaining 171 prisoners to US territories, their home countries, or any other country willing to take them. Thus, Obama prevented the closure of the infamous prison.

It now appears that Obama exploited the issue of the prison to get the votes of progressives and independents. Once in office, he backtracked on his promises to shut down Guantanamo, which many considered revolutionary during the campaign. Closing down the notorious detention facility was tantamount to a coup in American politics. But as his supporters discovered, Obama was reluctant to break with his predecessors and in many ways represented a continuation of the Bush era.

Obama’s advisers and inner circle, however, defend him on the issue of Guantanamo. They believe that he sincerely wanted to see the prison closed, but claim that legal and logistical constrains prevented the Justice Department from taking such action. For example, when Justice Department staff began to examine detainees’ files in response to Obama’s request, they discovered that many of the files were incomplete and needed a lot of time to organize and examine. Soon the 120-day freeze on trials that Obama ordered was over and proceedings against the detainees were resumed. In November 2009, just two months before the deadline set by his executive order earlier that year, Obama conceded that his administration may not be able to close the prison on time.

The first 20 detainees arrived on 11 January 2002, and 775 others soon followed. Years later, hundreds were released after evidence were exposed as flimsy or non-existent. The detainees were either sent back home or to countries that were willing receive them, particularly if they had no ‘terrorist’ links. Not all were set free upon their return. Some were detained upon their arrival.

It has been well established by now that Guantanamo’s detainees were tortured by either the CIA (or contractors of the agency) or US military personnel. Many prisoners released from Guantanamo spoke of water-boarding torture techniques, sexual assault, sedation by drugs, and religious persecution. Many were driven to suicide. US Army officers who served at the facility have charged that some of the reported suicides were actually cases of people tortured to death.

Guantanamo continues to stir controversy in the US, both in political circles and among the public at large. Its defenders worry that closing down the prison would mean the transfer of the detainees to the US mainland, where they can take advantage of legal and civil rights to escape justice.

This has led to endless discussions about how Guantanamo detainees should be prosecuted: Should trials be held in Guantanamo, or should prisoners be transferred to US territories for civil trials? Advocates of the first option say they do not want to burden US taxpayers with the expense of transferring the detainees and the high cost of providing security at their trials. They insist that al-Qaeda would target the areas where the courts are located. They argue that Guantanamo is a better location due to its distance from any major population center. By keeping the controversy open, Guantanamo is unlikely to close down soon, and the victims of its legacy will continue to suffer for some time to come.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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