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Close Guantánamo

by Nancy Talanian

Two presidents have called for Guantánamo Bay Prison's closure to preserve the safety of the United States, and yet today, nine years after the first load of prisoners arrived there, 173 prisoners remain. Only 5 percent were captured by U.S. forces on a battlefield. Most of the others were sold by foreign forces to the U.S. military in exchange for bounties of up to $5,000. Only five of the nearly 800 men who have ever been held there have been convicted or pled guilty in a military commission or a court trial. Only 35 of the 173 current inmates are expected to be charged with crimes.

Hope for Guantánamo detainees is short-lived. It took three victories in the U.S. Supreme Court before the first detainees were allowed, in 2008, to challenge the legality of their detentions in federal court. Yet even a win--a judge's order for the government to free a detainee--does not guarantee freedom. The Obama administration continues to hold 12 of the 38 men who have won their writs of habeas corpus after judges found the government lacked sufficient evidence to warrant holding them.

Detainees hoped President Obama's election would bring their freedom. However, scaremongering about the prison's closure and repeated roadblocks by Congress have prevented the release of any detainees into the U.S., which has in turn discouraged U.S. allies from resettling many men who cannot safely be repatriated. Why should they, they ask, when the U.S. accepts none?

Yemeni men have the least hope of release. Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a Yemeni, was sold for a bounty while in Pakistan seeking affordable medical treatment of a severe head injury. Last year, a federal judge granted his habeas petition, yet Latif remains in Guantánamo, along with some 90 Yemenis, because President Obama halted their release indefinitely following the Christmas Day 2009 airplane bombing attempt because the alleged perpetrator had an unproven connection to Yemen.

Equally worrisome is President Obama's plan to institute an official policy for holding 48 detainees in preventive detention indefinitely without charge or trial. The stated justification for the policy is that the evidence against the men was obtained through torture or coercion and is therefore inadmissible in court. It is inadmissible in court because it is unreliable. No officials who ordered harsh treatment have been charged or punished, but the victims of their policies may stay in prison forever as a result.

Binyam Mohammed, a former detainee who now lives in England, will tell you from experience that torture victims will say anything to stop the torture. Another detainee was held at Guantánamo on the basis of Mohammed's false testimony which he gave under torture. After Mohammed denounced his own false testimony, a federal judge ordered the government to free the other detainee, Algerian Farhi Saeed bin Mohammed. Bin Mohammed remained in Guantánamo afterward at his own request because he could not safely return to his home country. The Obama administration forcibly repatriated him to Algeria last Thursday.

Others who fear persecution if repatriated include Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian, and Ravil Mingazov of Russia, whom residents of Amherst and Leverett, Massachusetts, hope to welcome if Congress lifts a ban preventing any detainees from coming to the U.S. Belbacha was an accountant for the Algerian national oil company when he and other employees received death threats from a militant group now calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; several of Belbacha's coworkers were killed. Belbacha fled to the U.K., where he cleaned hotel rooms and studied English. While on vacation in Pakistan in fall 2001, he was sold to U.S. forces for a bounty. Belbacha has been cleared for transfer to Algeria since 2007, but he cannot safely return there. The U.K. will not take him because he is not a legal resident, having missed his U.K. asylum hearing because he was in Guantánamo.

Mingazov's stint in the Russian Army began when he joined its ballet troupe at age 19. He was repeatedly harassed after he converted to Islam while still in an Army that was intolerant to Muslim soldiers. In 2001, fearing for his family's safety after the KGB searched and ransacked his house, he left Russia in search of a Muslim country where they could practice their faith. Soon after arriving in a house for refugees in Pakistan, he and 16 other residents were rounded up by Pakistani police and turned over to the Americans.

These and other men like them are not our enemies. The U.S. has a sophisticated court system to try those suspected of wrongdoing. As for the others, the U.S. government's ban on their entry to the U.S. prevents their long-awaited freedom. If they are safe enough for our allies to accept, they are safe enough to live here.

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