29 January 2009 Edition
INTERNATIONAL: US President Barack Obama and Guantánamo Bay
What now for Guantánamo
BY SEÁN Ó FLOINN
JUST HOURS after taking the presidential reins last week, new United States President Barack Obama ordered a 120-day halt in all pending cases in the highly-controversial war crimes tribunals in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. This first measure is highly significant and Obama has since confirmed that he intends to fulfill his pre-election promise of closing Guantánamo within the year. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama labelled Guantánamo as “a sad chapter in American history” and now he has the power not only to close this tragic chapter but return the whole Guantánamo ‘book’ back to its rightful owner, Cuba.
The orange boiler suits and menacing shackles worn by inmates at Guantánamo have become synonymous with the former Bush administration’s over-the-top ‘War on Terror’.
The detention centre was opened for the purpose of holding suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda members in 2002. Bush and his cronies denied POW status for these ‘enemy combatants’ and stated that they did not deserve protections enshrined in the Geneva Human Rights Conventions. They essentially turned the centre into America’s Long Kesh and employed internment without trial.
US techniques at the camp have evoked widespread indignation and condemnation throughout the world. They have used sensory and sleep deprivation, beatings, ‘water-boarding’ (a simulated drowning technique), sexual degradation, humiliation, drugging and force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strikes. The United Nations, European Union and a plethora of international NGOs have called for its closure. Amnesty International has called it the “gulag of our times”.
Despite former Vice-President Dick Cheney commenting in 2005 that the prisoners “are living in the tropics” and are “well-fed”, having “everything they could possibly want”, life in Guantánamo for these prisoners, the vast majority there without trial or charge, is a living hell on earth.
There have been four reported suicides with numerous other attempts (it’s difficult to say exactly how many as this information has been deemed classified). The Americans have further contravened international law by detaining children at this camp.
Obama’s first move has sown seeds of hope for these prisoners who will unlikely have to face the infamous military commissions that were set up in a 2006 Act.
These ‘trials’ lack adequate legal protections for defendants as evidence can include mere hearsay and information extracted through torture. They are akin to Dublin’s Green Street Special Court in recent decades with their unjust processes. Of the approximately 245 suspects who remain in Guantánamo, less than 20 have been charged. Some have been detained here for up to seven years without ever facing trial. In Guantánamo, you are guilty until proven innocent.
SO WHAT NOW?
Many commentators have pointed to the problem of what to do with the current prisoners there.
Of the current remaining prisoner population, around 50 are said to be extremely reluctant to return to their native countries due to fear of persecution or further imprisonment.
Firstly, in my view, they should be given access to legal representation of their choice and if there is any concrete evidence against them, receive a fair trial in the United States.
Secondly, those who are found innocent should be repatriated. If they choose not to be they should have the option of asylum in the United States. Maybe they could even stay with George W Bush in his new $2.1m Dallas home.
There has been much furore over how to send these prisoners to trial but few words have been uttered in relation to demanding the trial of the perpetrators of such vile interrogation techniques against these prisoners, the vast majority who are reportedly innocent.
If Obama is sincere in his words that “America is not for torturing” he should not only fulfill his promised investigation into the torturous atrocities that were committed there but also bring the torturers to justice.
In a seismic shift in foreign policy, his promise to close down the numerous similar centres that the United States military and intelligence services have throughout the world (the so-called ‘ghost prisons’) has to be welcomed. An estimated 27,000 prisoners are held from Poland to South Africa, even on 17 floating ‘prison ships’ at sea.
The US has Guantánamo as a result of an imperialist land grab. After the 1898 Spanish-American war, the US simply replaced Spain as the ‘owners’ of Cuba. The Platt Amendment gave the US the right to intervene militarily at any time in Cuban affairs. When US troops were removed from the rest of Cuban soil, they conveniently annexed 115 square kilometers at Guantánamo Bay to be used as a naval station.
In 1934, President FD Roosevelt changed this control to a 99-year lease, due to expire in 2033. However, the devil was in the detail and the lease can only be terminated with the agreement of both Cuba and the US.
The US continues to hang on to Guantánamo Bay despite half a century of pleas and demands from the Cuban Government to return this land to the Cuban people. Cuba’s government repeatedly refuses to collect the $4,000 per annum rent on the Bay as they deem it an illegal occupation.
Guantánamo (or ‘Gitmo’, as the Americans like to refer to it), is home to around 7,000 US personnel. It is cut off from the rest of the tropical island by trenches, barbed-wire fences and watch-towers, and with 75,000 landmines it is the most heavily-mined area on earth.
While Gitmo’s US residents gorge on happy meals in the local McDonalds and sip lattés in the nearby Starbucks, for the last seven years hundreds of detainees have been beaten and tortured in the camps. Not only should President Obama close down these cages of torture, preferably a lot sooner than 12 months, he should seek justice for those wrongly detained and ensure their safety, and also give Guantánamo Bay back to the Cuban people and withdraw all US troops and personnel from the area.