Ten years on, Guantanamo still casts long shadow

Karen J. Greenberg in AsiaOne, January 08, 2012

Media Source

WASHINGTON - Ten years ago the world was shocked by images of terror suspects locked in cages on a remote US base in Cuba. Today 171 men are still there, despite vows to close the notorious Guantanamo prison.

On January 11, 2002, about 20 prisoners arrived at the base, hooded, handcuffed and clothed in distinctive orange garb. They were put on display at the prison erected on the military base rented from Cuba under a deal stretching back to 1903.

Quickly Guantanamo became a notorious symbol for the worst of the US excesses in the war on Al-Qaeda launched in the days that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Today, a decade later the cages are gone, abandoned to the weeds and the iguanas which roam the base.

But despite President Barack Obama's celebrated promise to shutter the prison the more permanent buildings constructed from May 2002 onwards remain.

And within their walls still languish 171 men, out of a total of 779 who have passed through the gates in the last 10 years.

Those detainees still remaining have greater freedom than in the early days, with access to newspapers and televisions, some phone calls home, and with 80 per cent of them allowed to mingle in common areas.

"We've always tried to improve the facility conditions of detention," said Colonel Donnie Thomas, joint detention group commander, saying the men had more freedom to go in and out of their cells, as well as to pray and relax together.

"Although President Obama remains committed to the goal of closing Guantanamo, the US Congress has taken action to prevent steps that would assist in the realization of this goal," Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale told AFP.

But Obama's room for maneuver has been severely curtailed. A controversial law, which the president himself signed at the end of December after bitter partisan infighting, de facto prevents the prison from closing.

It bans the use of public funds to transfer detainees to the United States and decrees that terror suspects must be tried before special military commissions.

"Hope is fading. Closing Guantanamo is harder politically and legally because of this legislation detainees are in legal limbo," said Jonathan Hafetz, a law professor from Seton Hall Law School, who represents one inmate.

Only six detainees have been found guilty by military commissions, according to the Pentagon, and seven others - including the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks - will appear before the tribunals in the coming months.

Some 89 inmates have been cleared of all charges, but pose a headache for the Obama administration which cannot find nations to take them in amid fears they will face persecution and oppression in their own countries.

Among them are some Uighurs, part of a group of 22 from Turkic-speaking northwest China, arrested at a camp in the mountains of Afghanistan after the US-led invasion of the country began in October 2001.

While most of the Uighurs were relocated in such countries as Albania, Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland, another group has been fighting in the US courts to be relocated onto US soil.

"Guantanamo has come to symbolize 10 years of a systematic failure by the US to respect human rights in its response to the 9/11 attacks," said Amnesty International's Rob Freer.

"Guantanamo remains an insult to human rights, not just a symbol of abuse or ill-treatment, a symbol of continuing attack on human rights international principles... (the) failure of the US to ensure accountability."

Terrorism expert Karen Greenberg agreed, saying: "The legal issue was that they had rounded up these individuals in Afghanistan or elsewhere and they didn't have a legal category in which to place them.

"They weren't prisoners of war and they weren't really anything else," added the Fordham University expert, charging that the issue under what legal regime to treat the prisoners was left "up to the people on the ground."

"Without a policy at all, without any definition of status without any name, label or guidance, the men on the ground designed a policy to deal for the first 300 detainees."

A report by Amnesty International to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison is entitled: "Guantanamo: a decade of damage to human rights."

"The failure of the US government to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is leaving a toxic legacy for human rights," it says.

"The roots of the problem lie further back in the long-standing reluctance of the USA to apply to itself international human rights standards it so often says it expects of others."

Freer added that "if Guantanamo was operated by another country it would be by no doubt" figure in the annual State Department report on human rights.

"It has profoundly damaged the US reputation in the world as a defender of human rights," agreed Hina Shamsi, from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Ten years ago, nobody could have thought it would be a permanent part of the US landscape."