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Michael Ratner: Just when it seemed the illegal detention of prisoners at Guantanamo was off the radar, hunger strikers took control of their own destiny

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner, who now joins us from New York.

Michael’s president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. He’s chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s the American attorney for Julian Assange. He’s a board member of The Real News.

And thanks for joining us again, Michael.


JAY: What are you working on?

RATNER: Well, I’ve been working on right now and for 12 years the shutting down Guantanamo and getting the people out of there. The Center for Constitutional Rights was the first place that actually brought the cases on behalf of the Guantanamo detainees. I remember filing the first case in February 2002. Guantanamo opened in January 2002. So we’re now seeing our 12th year. People who are there have been there, many of them, for 12 years.

Let me give you some background, and then let’s go to a hunger strike, which was the key and important news we’re dealing with right now. There’s 166 people left in Guantanamo. Eighty-six of those people have been cleared for release. What that means is that even the United States doesn’t think they should be in Guantanamo, yet the majority of even those 86 cleared for release have been in Guantanamo for 11 or 12 years.

And the question is: why do they remain there, and what can be done about it?

Well, we as lawyers have been litigating these cases for 12 years. Yes, we’ve gotten a lot of people out, but we have not gotten these 166 out yet, nor closed down Guantanamo, nor reversed the policies that set up Guantanamo. And to be honest, up until three months ago, I felt we were at a dead end. The litigation had really dead-ended. Yes, lawyers from the Center and other lawyers around the country were visiting the people at Guantanamo, but there was little we could do. It was off the front pages. No one seemed to care. The administration didn’t care. Congress could have cared less. The American people couldn’t care.

And then something that happened that is really dramatic, which is a hunger strike began at Guantanamo. And that hunger strike has snowballed and grown, as difficult as it is for people to go on a hunger strike. And as we speak now, there are probably rightly over 100 people on a hunger strike, of which 23 people are being force-fed.

And the way I look at that is, first of all, how incredibly important it is, because as now the outside world has failed the people at Guantanamo–the courts have failed, Obama has failed, Congress has failed, the world has failed–the Guantanamo detainees have taken their lives in their own hands and they’re deciding their fate. And they’re deciding, as much as they don’t want to die, as much as they don’t want to give up their lives or seeing their children or their families again, that they have no other way to get out of there except to manifest their situation by a hunger strike. It’s horrible, but at the same time, it’s them finally taking control of their lives.

And the effect has been dramatic. A situation and an issue that was off the pages is now on the front pages constantly. The New York Times has had three remarkable editorials. They have had an op-ed. The UN has come out with statements about the situation–the arbitrary detention, the forced feeding, etc. So we’re in a different situation now. It’s actually back. And I now have some optimism that perhaps, perhaps they’ll move that camp, Guantanamo, to its closure.

Now, in talking about that, one of the big things that’s happened since then is this week Obama made a major speech, a major press conference speech, about the situation at Guantanamo. It made people feel very good. He said this is a stain on America, it’s not in our national interests, we shouldn’t be running a place like this. And then he went on–and I’ll talk about that–what he’s going to do about it.

The problem is–first problem is Obama has said almost the exact same thing before, in May 2009. He gave a speech that in many regards, almost word for word, is similar to what he’s now said four and a half years later. And in the speech he made four and a half years ago–or four years ago (it was May 2009), he basically said he wanted it closed, and he had signed an executive order saying, I’m going to close it.

And then what Obama did after that speech in 2009: he proceeded to undermine his own words with actions that had nothing to do with closing it, but actually set it back. So, for example, he refused to allow the Uyghurs from Western China into the United States, even though they’d been cleared for release and ordered into the United States by a federal court. At that point, once he was weak-kneed about that, early on in his administration, Congress got into the act and started putting restrictions on it. And he repeated that mistake again and again, really showing that while he said he wanted it closed and he gave nice words about closing it, he never had the courage to close it.

And two things that happened again like that: he fired a special–or not fired, but the person resigned, Greg Craig, who was a White House council, who was appointed to help close Guantanamo, left the job within a year of Obama taking office the first time. And then, in this new administration, as they announced a new administration a few months ago, Obama abolished the office that was set up at the State Department to close Guantanamo. So it’s completely off the agenda–until the hunger strike.

But the real point I’m illustrating here is that you can’t believe Obama’s words. So we look at this second speech, which made people feel very good–oh, Obama says it has to be closed. But then what he said about his actions made you feel less than confident that he was going to do it. He said, I will work with Congress to close Guantanamo. Well, that’s completely hopeless. Congress is much worse than he is. They’re the ones that have put in the restrictions. They’re the ones that won’t let any trials happen in the United States. They’re the ones that have said you have to get special waivers to release people. So Congress is worthless here. And for him to say he was going to work with them is an abomination [crosstalk]

JAY: What are his options to do it without working with Congress? Why can’t–I mean, he doesn’t seem shy about using executive orders.

RATNER: Yes. Well, he has an option that we are recommending at the Center, and everybody’s saying he should have done. When Congress passed the restrictions on Guantanamo, it did leave a hole that you could drive almost all of Guantanamo through, and it’s called the Waiver Provision of the infamous National Defense Authorization Act. A section of it concerns Guantanamo, and that section says the president can waive any of the restrictions that are in the act with regard to Guantanamo and transfer people out of Guantanamo to other countries. That has been in effect for two years.

I won’t even ask you how many people do you think Obama has freed based on the Waiver Provision of the NDAA. The answer is a big fat goose egg. Zero. He’s never had the courage to exercise the waiver. It’s an unreviewable waiver. He gives a waiver to any of those people and they’re out of there and they’re in countries that he can find for them and put them. And he’s never exercised it. And, in fact, 55 of the cleared people are from Yemen. They could be sent back today, tomorrow, or the next day under a waiver. But Obama won’t do it. He now claims that Yemen is off-base because it’s–country is not stable enough and he won’t send them back.

But let’s just see how crazy that is. Remember, these people have been cleared for release. They’re still sitting at Guantanamo. They’re innocent. They shouldn’t even be there at all. And Obama hasn’t yet exercised the waiver. So all of the claims that this is Congress’s fault, this is all about Congress, this isn’t Obama’s fault, let me say it’s right at the door of the White House, right at the door. Half that place should be closed tomorrow with waivers, and then we can continue [incompr.] process of doing that and getting it closed. [crosstalk]

JAY: Is there any way that people that have been cleared can sue?

RATNER: We’ve tried it all. Everything has been tried. Nothing has worked. The Supreme Court gave us a good decision a couple of years ago in the Boumediene case. Since then, the Circuit Court has undermined that decision. Eight times we’ve gone back to the Supreme Court. Eight times we’ve been refused.

So now what we have [incompr.] let’s put this in this context. Now what we have is we have a hunger strike that’s forcing this issue and the freedom of people who should not be there anymore back to the front page. And what we now have is a situation where Obama is going to be forced to act if he wants to save people and if he wants to get rid of Guantanamo.

But in my view, the Guantanamo detainees have now, as I said earlier, taken their lives into their own hands. And there’s no more they can do. They are doing what they can. And now it’s up to all of us–you, me, everybody who hears this program–to go and get active on Guantanamo. There’s plenty of things to do. You can go to the Center for Constitutional Rights website. You can go to Witness Against Torture. Just put it in, do anything, because now it’s up to us to force Obama to finally get the camp closed.

One addition I want to make about the hunger strike. One of the things Obama said in this speech this week was that he was sending forty medics down to Guantanamo so people could be force fed, essentially. And the force-feeding is torture of its own. I’ve seen pictures of it. I’ve talked to people who’ve done it. People are put into a restrained chair. Their heads are restrained. Their arms are restrained. It’s a specially built chair to restrain people. And then a large tube is forced down their nose into their throat and into their stomach, and then something like Ensure is poured in. There’s complaints that the tube is too wide. It tortures people. It hurts them mercilessly. One client described it as if a razor is being stuck up into your nose. It’s horrible. It’s just horrible. And that’s what they’re doing, because really it’s a means of breaking the hunger strike, by making it so painful for people to be force-fed.

And a second issue on force-feeding is that it is unethical. It’s not allowed under medical ethics. And there’s a long history to this. And recently the American Medical Association–no paragon of liberalism–came out and said force-feeding is against a doctor’s ethics and should not be done. People have an individual right to make a decision about the care they’re going to receive. And that applies to whether it’s me being taken off a monitor or something in a hospital or someone being force-fed.

And it came up most dramatically in the case of Bobby Sands. Bobby Sands was a hunger striker, a political prisoner in Ireland or in a British jail being held because of the wars in Northern Ireland. He went on a hunger strike, and that question came up, and Bobby Sands died because of his hunger strike. He died and was not force-fed. And let me just say the effect in Ireland was dramatic. It changed the whole debate.

But our government is not only leaving people who should be released in Guantanamo and keeping it open, but it is now violating every rule and ethical precept in the books by force-feeding people.

I want to close this segment by really saying we’ve been at this for 12 years. Obama’s a very good speaker. His words are always up in the sky like a church. But in the end, unless we force him to act, you and I will be, next year, talking about how do we close Guantanamo.

So I just say to everybody it’s–admonish everybody: get out there, support what’s happening at Guantanamo. The best support those hunger strikers can get is for us to just push this issue down the throats of the people who talk with big words but don’t do anything about it.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: Thanks for having me, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.