x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ten years of Guantanamo Bay: A jail no one wants but no one can shut down

Demonstrations in London and Washington marked yesterday's anniversary, and the prisoners themselves planned sit-ins, banners and a refusal of meals.

Detainees marked the 10th anniversary of Guantanamo Bay by staging sit-ins and refusing to eat meals.
Detainees marked the 10th anniversary of Guantanamo Bay by staging sit-ins and refusing to eat meals.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO // Suleiman Al Nahdi waits with dozens of other prisoners in a seemingly permanent state of limbo five years after he was cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay.

"I wonder if the US government wants to keep us here for ever," Mr Al Nahdi, 37, wrote to his lawyers.

Ten years after the first 20 captives arrived at the US naval base in southeast Cuba, the prison seems more established than ever. The deadline to close it set by Barack Obama, the US president, came and went two years ago. No detainee has left in a year because of restrictions on transfers, and indefinite military detention is now enshrined in US law.

Demonstrations in London and Washington marked yesterday's anniversary, and the prisoners themselves planned sit-ins, banners and a refusal of meals. "They would like to send a message that the prisoners of Guantanamo still reject the injustice of their imprisonment," said Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York and lawyer for seven inmates.

Human-rights groups and lawyers for prisoners are dismayed that Mr Obama not only failed to overcome resistance in Congress and close the prison, but that his administration has resumed military tribunals at the base and continues to hold men such as Mr Al Nahdi who have been cleared for release.

Critics are also angry over the president's December 31 signing of the National Defence Authorisation Act, which includes a provision allowing indefinite military detention without trial.

"Now, we have Guantanamo forever signed into law," said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch. "Instead of pushing forward with the agenda of closure, he has accepted the idea of indefinite detention for the duration of some undefined hostilities."

The White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Monday that Mr Obama still wants to close Guantanamo because "it's the right thing to do for our national-security interest", a view that he says is shared by senior members of the military.

Guantanamo holds 171 prisoners, and they are an odd mix, ranging from hardcore Al Qaeda members to hapless bystanders.

Mr Al Nahdi seems to be in the middle. He was detained in June 2002 because he attended a militant training camp in Afghanistan, but he is not accused of any specific attacks. The US military classified him as a "low level" fighter who could be transferred out of Guantanamo. He's still there.

The US has always rejected most allegations of abuse at Guantanamo, but Washington also decided at an early stage that the camp's reputation was more trouble than it was worth. George W Bush's administration released 537 prisoners, transferring them to other countries or freeing them outright.

Under Mr Obama, Congress halted that process amid concerns that some released prisoners had rejoined the Taliban or Al Qaeda. It has been a year since a single man was transferred out.

"These are men who were in their early twenties when they were picked up. Now they are in their early thirties and a significant amount of their lives has slipped away while this debate has gone on and on and on," said Cori Crider, a lawyer for the British human-rights group Reprieve who represents several of the prisoners.

Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Congress was more interested in scoring political points, and should listen to security experts.

"We are not talking about releasing anyone who is dangerous. We're talking about releasing people who the intelligence and military communities have unanimously agreed should be released," Katznelson said.

Congress has prohibited moving any Guantanamo prisoners to the US for detention or trial, which effectively blocked Mr Obama's goal of closing the prison by January 2009 and trying the September 11 plotter Mohammed, and others accused of war crimes in a civilian court. Mohammed is expected to be arraigned at the base later this year.

Congress also stripped the prisoners of the right to challenge their detention in the courts by filing writs of habeas corpus. The Supreme Court returned that right, but the courts have said the US can still detain men even if there is little evidence against them and no intention of charging them.

In such a bleak legal landscape, Mr Al Nahdi's lawyers withdrew their appeal rather than face certain defeat. It makes for difficult meetings when they must explain to him why so many others, including prisoners convicted of war crimes, have been released.

"He says, 'How come I can't go home? I've never been charged and I'm never going to be charged'. And of course, I have no answer to those questions," Mr Chandler said.