Greg Wilesmith. Guantanomo Bay: Obama’s big failure.

May 7, 2016

Good news on Gitmo. There are just 80 prisoners left in their cramped, high security cells in a small, far off, scrubby peninsula on Cuba.

That’s about 160 fewer than when Barack Obama became president in early 2009 promising to close Guantanomo within a year.

So not exactly Mission Accomplished! as President Bush trumpeted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Obama’s presidential promise won’t be fulfilled and amounts to another big political failure.

Having filmed at Guantanomo two years ago, under strict military censorship, for the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program, reported by Lisa Millar, I’ve been keen to see what would happen to the prisoners, many of whom having been interrogated numerous times, were cleared for “transfer” (Pentagon code for release) years ago.

The Yemenis have been dispatched to Saudi Arabia, where all have family connections. None were charged with any crime let alone attacking New York or Washington. All have called Guantanomo home since 2002.

You’ll remember the shackled, shambling orange-suited inmates of Camp X-ray which proved such a US public relations disaster; bent over, sometimes hooded, being frog-marched along the wire.

We were assured by Vice President Dick Cheney they were the “worst in the world”. Some were but the truth was that many just happened to be the wrong place at the wrong time.

One of the more notorious of the men and boys swept up in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the post 9/11 period – like many he says he was “sold” to the Americans by Pakistani police – and labelled an “enemy combatant” is Tariq Ba Odah. He was 23.

Ba Odah, now 37, is notorious not for any alleged crime but for his extraordinary persistence as a Guantanomo hunger striker.

He’s been refusing solid foods since 2007. Being strapped down twice a day and force fed by a tube up his nose seemingly failed to quench his spirit even when by last year he had lost close to half his normal body weight and was down to 36 kg.

His lawyer Omar Farah quoted Ba Odah in an essay for Rolling Stone, saying, “My method of delivering my message is through hunger strike. You can cut me to pieces, but I will not break it. I will stop on one of two conditions: I die, or I am freed and allowed to return to my family.”

One can only imagine Ba Odah’s feelings, now aged 36 and having been incarcerated for more than a third of his life.

Along with the other former prisoners his confinement is not yet over. Saudi Arabia, waging a largely hidden but bloody insurrection, has a “rehabilitation” program for alleged jihadis and the Guantanomo 9 will have to enter it. A few months, maybe longer, but ultimately most will be free.

The Saudis have taken their time; they were first approached close to a decade ago to take Yemeni prisoners, some who had been born in the Saudi kingdom or had been long term residents.

Obama’s rhetoric on Guantanomo is familiar. And so again in February, this year, Obama launched a new effort to persuade Congress to close Guantanamo saying, “It’s counterproductive to our fight against terrorists, because they use it as propaganda in their efforts to recruit…Guantanamo harms our partnerships with allies and other countries whose cooperation we need against terrorists.

“Americans, we pride ourselves on being a beacon to other nations, a model of the rule of law.  But 15 years after 9/11 – 15 years after the worst terrorist attack in American history – we’re still having to defend the existence of a facility and a process where not a single verdict has been reached in those attacks – not a single one.” *

Congress wasn’t convinced. For many Republicans and some Democrats, the political downside to allowing non-convicted “terrorists” to be relocated to mainland American prisons is too high.

Or put it another way there’s more political kudos in proclaiming the dangers of bringing “terrorists” to maximum security prisons on the mainland than worrying about whether some innocent men languishing at Guantanomo will remain there indefinitely without trial – until they die.

Of the 80 men left at Guantanomo the bulk are from Yemen. The US maintains that the civil war raging there, in which Saudi Arabia is an active participant, using US supplied weapons, makes it impossible to return them, particularly given the growing power base of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).

And yet it’s vital to remember that of the remaining 80, 26 were cleared for release years ago. In any conventional US judicial system they would have been enjoyed years of freedom by now.

Of the rest 49 are categorized as “forever” prisoners – labelled so dangerous they can’t be freed – and 10 are on trial before the stop/start military commissions held at the military base; which as Obama noted acerbically haven’t yet handed down a single verdict.

These figures were compiled by the remarkable Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald who has been reporting Guantanomo intensively since January 11, 2002 when she watched the first 20 prisoners arriving.

Without her constant probing over the past 14 years – and an outstanding commitment to the story by her newspaper – the military censorship cloaking Gitmo would have been much more effective.

Rosenberg’s editor in 2002 asked her to cover the Guantanomo beat until it was over. It isn’t over.

Greg Wilesmith is a freelance journalist and was an ABC foreign correspondent and producer.


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