Gitmo at 14: Obama's Last Chance to Fulfill Promise and Close 'Moral Disaster Zone'

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Gitmo at 14: Obama's Last Chance to Fulfill Promise and Close 'Moral Disaster Zone'

"It's not enough for President Obama to say he tried," says Center for Constitutional Rights. "He is the Commander in Chief."

Witness Against Torture activists fast on Thanksgiving in solidarity with hunger striking detainees at Guantánamo Bay on November 30, 2015. (Photo: Justin Norman/flickr/cc)

Fourteen years ago on Monday, the first wave of detainees arrived at the notorious U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. 

Seven years ago, President-elect Barack Obama promised that he would close the detention center within one year.

Yet as of January 11, 2016, just over 100 men—dozens already cleared for transfer, and the vast majority never charged with a crime—remain at Gitmo.

According to a call-to-action from a coalition of human rights activists, torture survivors, Guantánamo attorneys, and members of diverse faith communities, "Some remain on hunger strike and are force-fed, and a handful are facing charges in unfair trials. There has been no accountability for the torture that many detainees have suffered."

Gitmo, the groups say, "is the bitter legacy of a politics of fear, which must be rejected."

And so on Monday, in Washington, D.C., London, South Florida, and elsewhere, demonstrators will repeat the demand they've put forth for more than a decade: Close Guantánamo now.

For Obama and his administration, time is running out—fast.

"Every year, for the last seven years, concerned activists and citizens have called on President Obama to fulfill his promise during his first year in office and demanded that Guantánamo be closed once and for all; every year, these calls have remained unheeded," said Dr. Zainab Chaudry of Interfaith Action for Human Rights. "This is President Obama's final year in office. That means this is also his final opportunity to follow through on his promise, shut down Guantanamo, and restore some semblance of dignity to our justice system. This opportunity must not be left ignored."

Describing the prison as "a moral disaster zone," Rev. Ron Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, added: "It would be a grave sin and a national disgrace for President Obama to leave office without closing Guantánamo."

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said as recently as Sunday that the president "feels an obligation to his successor" to close Guantánamo before leaving office. According to Time magazine:

McDonough said the president will present Congress with a detailed plan to close the prison, but did not completely rule out Obama using his executive authority to close the prison if his Congressional plan fails.

“The president just said he’s going to present a plan to Congress and work with Congress and then we’ll make some final determination,” McDonough said Sunday.

Meanwhile, recent news reports have outlined how bureaucratic delays and Obama's own Department of Defense have thwarted efforts to transfer cleared detainees from the offshore prison.

For example, the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman reported Monday that "frustrated officials say the special review board designed to speed up the closure of the detention camp in Cuba contains a major flaw which allows the process to grind almost to a halt."

But for those pushing for Gitmo's immediate closure, these are nothing more than empty excuses. The onus is on him, advocates say.

"It's not enough for President Obama to say he tried, but that Congress and other obstacles are preventing him from closing Guantánamo," said Aliya Hussain, advocacy program director for the Guantánamo Global Justice Initiative at the Center for Constitutional Rights. "Obama has the authority to make significant progress. He is the Commander in Chief, yet officials within the Department of Defense openly defy his policy objectives and derail closure efforts."

"Don't let President Obama blame others," added Michael Ratner, an attorney who has represented Guantánamo detainees before the U.S. Supreme Court, in an email alert circulated Monday by CodePink. "A reluctant Pentagon is no excuse. Obama is Commander in Chief. The fault is not in the stars, but with him. One day of unlawful detention is an outrage, 14 years is an abomination. If Obama is to close the prison before he leaves office, he must move to do so now."

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