JESSICA DESVARIEUX: May 17 marks the 100th day of the beginning of the hunger strike in Guantanamo Bay. A hundred thirty detainees have refused to eat or drink. It’s an action they have done in the past. But with 80 percent of the inmates now on strike for more than three months, it’s unprecedented.
President Obama ran for his first term on the promise that he would close down Guantanamo. And on January 22, 2009, he signed an executive order to shut down Guantanamo within a year.
It’s been four years since then. And it wasn’t until a press conference last month that the president re-committed to closing the prison.
BARACK OBAMA: I think it Is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficent. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.
DESVARIEUX: Closed is exactly how human rights advocates and military officials gathered in D.C. want to see the detention center. A panel of representatives close to the detainees emphasized that the majority of them are cleared for release but are still being detained indefinitely.
Former Gitmo chief prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis said that the public needs to educate themselves on the issue, specifically when it relates to prisoners who are cleared for release but still detained.
COL. MORRIS DAVIS: I think they’re unaware that of 779 people there thhat were ever taken there that there are 166 left, that over 600, mainly during Bush adminstration, were determined not to be the worst of the worst and were sent back to wherever they were from. Of the 166 that are left, 86–you’ve had the CIA, the FBI, Department of Justice, and Department of Defense sit down and unaniously agree that hey didn’t commit a crime, we’re not going to charge them with anything, they don’t pose an imminent threat, and we don’t want to keep them. And so we’ve got a majority, 86 of the 166, that have been there year after year after year after being cleared to be transferred out that we’re paying $8,000 or $9,000 a year per person to keep them sitting there at Guantanamo because of their citizenship. So we’re wasting over $75 million a year to put people in prison that we don’t want to imprison.
DESVARIEUX: So why is the prison still open? And moreover, why or those cleared for release still detained?
Those in the Obama adminstration point to Congress as being the roadblock. But attorney for eleven of the detainees Carlos Warner said that the president has the power to move forward without Congress if he appointed a senior government official to shepherd the process of closure and the release of cleared detainees.
CARLOS WARNER: He can close it still in a year. But he’s got to put the right people in charge. And he can get the innocent people out in a month. He’s got to talk to the right people. And he can end the hunger strike. He’s got to talk to people like us in order to do that.
DESVARIEUX: The panel pointed to Americans’ lack of support for the close of the camp also delaying Gitmo’s closure. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released on May 15 showed that 52 percent of Americans oppose closing the prison while 39 percent support doing so.
Opposition on the right argues in favor of keeping Gitmo open. Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today that the president lacked comprehensive policy to deal with prisoners; thereby the decision to keep Gitmo open is the only appropriate action at the moment.
Colonel Morris Davis completely disagrees. He argued that although the Obama administration hasn’t made their policy clear, the administration does have viable options.
DAVIS: This notion that only Guantanamo is suitable is just wrong, ’cause we have prosecuted hundreds and hundreds of terrorism-related cases since 9/11 in our federal courts without incident, with complete success, in a way that’s credible, while at Guantanamo we’ve tried seven people in military commissions. Six of the seven the apellate court in Washington ruled what they were convicted of was not really not an offense. Five of the seven that have been convicted are now back home in their home country. They’re not at Guantanamo. So this whole notion that only Guantanamo and only military commissions are appropriate is just a flat out lie.
Another possiblity would be for the ones that really are among the worst of the worst is–I think a compromise position would be Congress has the authority to create a new federal district court, which you could create and conduct at Guantanamo. So if you buy into the argument, oh, they’re too dangerous to bring to America, but we want to use our credible and proven court system rather than this military commission charade, convene a federal court at Guantanamo and prosecute them in federal court there.
But this status quo that has gone on, you know, this legal limbo for more than a decade is what led to the hunger strike.
DESVARIEUX: The hunger strike for most Americans is an abstract and not a reality. But there are human rights advocates like Diane Wilson who are acting in solidarity with the detainees. She has been on a water-only hunger strike since May 1, and she said that she has no intention of quitting until prisoners cleared for release begin to be freed.
DIANE WILSON: These men are that desperate. And I’ve done hunger strikes before, so I know how, how you do it at the last resort. It is not just a whim to do a hunger strike.
DESVARIEUX: The United States government is currently force-feeding hunger striking detainees. A military prison document obtained by Al Jazeera described the process. First a tube is snaked through their nostril until a chest x-ray or a test dose of water confirms that the substance has reached their stomach. Diane said that finding out about such brutal practices motivated her to stay in solidarity with the prisoners.
WILSON: And I do know there were quite a few young people. You know, like, some of them were twelve. Some of them were all the way up to fifteen. And it sickens me how the war on terror, the fear that is engrained in the conscious of the American people right now, they have no problem about just washing Guantanamo away, out of sight, out of mind.
DESVARIEUX: It’s day 100 of the hunger strike, and it looks like there’s no end in sight. It will be up to President Obama to live up to his promise of closing Guantanamo this second time around.
For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.
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