Guantánamo: How Much Longer?
by Moazzam Begg
The notorious prison is six years old today. But despite calls from across the US political spectrum, it doesn’t look likely to close soon
On January 11 2008 the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay enters the seventh year since the first men captured during the “war on terror” were brought there shackled, hooded, masked and ear-muffed.
Much has happened over the past few years that should have sufficed in bringing about the demise and closure of the world’s most notorious prison: The 2004 US supreme court ruling in Rasul (2004) passed in favour of the right of detainees to apply for habeas corpus; the US supreme court ruling in Hamdan (2006) stating President Bush did not have the authority to set up military commissions because it violated the uniform code of military justice (UCMJ) and the Geneva conventions.
Also, last year, in the cases of Salim Hamdan (allegedly Osama bin Laden’s driver) and Omar Khadr (a Canadian citizen detained since the age of 15), all charges were dismissed because they had only been classified as “enemy combatants” and not “unlawful enemy combatants”. Despite all of these rulings by the highest court in the land both men – and about 275 others – remain in custody without charge or trial.
Just before the advent of 2008, Guantánamo’s most well-known prisoner, David Hicks, was finally freed in his native Australia. In May 2007, Hicks entered a plea bargain and became the first prisoner to be convicted in Guantánamo. He was given a custodial sentence of only nine months – which he served out in his home town, Adelaide.
In this country, four British residents, on whose behalf the Blair administration had refused to intervene, were finally reunited with their families in this country last year. The struggle for two others, Binyam Mohammed and Ahmed Belbacha, continues.
Nearly 500 men have been released from Guantánamo since it was opened in 2002. This is quite surprising considering all of them, including me, were deemed by the US administration as the “worst of the worst”. Even more surprising is the fact that at least two of them, released several years ago, included the former Taliban foreign minister and spokesman.
Of the Saudi citizens, who once outnumbered all other nationalities in the camp, only a handful remains. They include a former UK resident, Shaker Aamer, whose return to Saudi Arabia his British wife and children eagerly await.
During 2006 and last year, five other men were freed from Guantánamo, though by more unconventional means. Four of them allegedly committed suicide – though no post-mortem reports have ever been made public – and, less than a fortnight ago, an Afghan prisoner became the first to die of “natural causes”. The bodies were all returned home.
If all of the above is not enough to bring about the end for Guantánamo then perhaps we need to hear what some the most influential people in the US have said about it:
The former US secretary of state, Colin Powell, said: “… if it were up to me I would close Guantánamo not tomorrow but this afternoon” and “… I would get rid of Guantánamo and the military commission system.”
The former US president, Jimmy Carter, said: “… our government needs to close down Guantánamo and the two dozen other secret detention facilities …”
The former US president, Bill Clinton, said: “… [Guantánamo should be] closed down or cleaned up…”
Even the US president, GW Bush, said: “I would like to close the camp [Guantánamo]…”
The US senator, Barack Obama, said: “While we’re at it … we’re going to close Guantánamo. And we’re going to restore habeas corpus … We’re going to lead by example, by not just word but by deed. That’s our vision for the future.”
Senator Hilary Clinton said: “Guantánamo has become associated in the eyes of the world with a discredited administration policy of abuse, secrecy, and contempt for the rule of law. Rather than keeping us more secure, keeping Guantánamo open is harming our national interests.”
Senator John McCain said: “Guantánamo has become a symbol around the world that is not good … we should try them or release them”.
The latter three have just contested elections for state primaries and will soon be fighting to assume the presidency of the US. This will come after the long overdue departure of Bush later this year. Guantánamo will probably not be closed before that happens, but as long as it remains open there will be people calling unequivocally for it to close.
Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and spokesman for Cageprisoners.
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