Guantánamo: No Closure Yet

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The Guardian/UK

Guantánamo: No Closure Yet

As long as the US continues to deny legal redress to Guantánamo inmates, we cannot celebrate the release of a few prisoners

by
Kate Allen

Three more men are back from Guantánamo and the slow emptying of the prison camp continues. But is this cause for much celebration? Not really.

Leaving aside the issue of possible extradition of the released men to other countries to face criminal charges, the overriding problem is that the United States is still doggedly refusing to accept that there is anything wrong with holding prisoners who have been stripped of their human rights.

Six years on from the initiation of the US-declared "war on terror", the White House says it wants to close Guantánamo eventually but it still hasn't backed away from the legal process it's set up. This is profoundly worrying.

Let's examine the Guantánamo balance sheet. Since mid-January 2002, nearly 800 people have been imprisoned at Camp X-Ray and its successor prisons (Camp Delta, Camp Echo and the other hi-tech supermax facilities). Of these, almost 500 have been released without charge. So how many have actually been brought to trial? The answer is none. One man, the Australian David Hicks, pleaded guilty earlier this year as part of a deal that saw him sent to Australia to serve out his sentence. But no one has been formally tried and only a tiny number of the 300 prisoners still held have been charged (three at the last count). US officials are now only talking of a maximum of 80 ever eventually facing charges.

In simple terms of serving justice, this is a deeply unimpressive record. But the quality of this grindingly slow process is even more lamentable.

If the small number of attempted prosecutions ever goes ahead, they will be before "military commission" tribunals, military panels (rather than courts). These can allow secret unchallengeable "evidence" that may have come from tortured prisoners. The process is wholly run by the US department of defence and the death penalty can be imposed (including for "spying") with only a limited means of appeal. And lest we forget, only non-Americans are held at Guantánamo. The prisoners do not get full American justice - they get Guantánamo.

Guantánamo's kangaroo courts are a far cry from real trials and legal challenges in the US mainland courts (the real courts) may yet expose their patchwork quasi-legal processes as unfair, unworkable and unconstitutional.

Legally, then, Guantánamo is massive failure. It is also politically unpopular as never before. It has dragged the US human rights reputation through the mud and undermined global efforts to promote common human rights standards from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe.

Six years on many people - in this country and around the world - are deeply disturbed by the dangerous experiment of justice Guantánamo-style. Yes, the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were terrible crimes and the US government had a duty to bring the perpetrators to justice. But in sidestepping its own Constitution, in navigating around centuries of US and international laws, and in announcing that its Camp X-Ray prisoners were neither criminal suspects or prisoners of war, the US administration effectively tore up the rulebook. Rather than using tried and tested legal processes, the US stitched together bits and pieces from the laws of "war" and the laws of criminal justice. The outcome has been the creation of a freakish new legal creature: Guantánamo Bay. It's neither one thing nor another, a Frankenstein's monster of justice.

And Guantánamo has torn lives apart. Some 80% of the detainees still stranded at the camp are held in solitary confinement. Many of them are suffering from mental illnesses and there have been scores of suicide attempts (four men are now dead). Families in Britain and in countries around the world have struggled to find out what was happening to their loved ones, and what would become of them.

Amazingly enough, then, six years since this all began, the US has performed the unlikely feat of making Cuba synonymous with American human rights abuse, not with Cuban human rights abuse.

A few more men are out of Guantánamo, yes, but there's still little cause for celebration. I'll raise a small cheer the day the camp closes. I'll raise a far louder one when the US admits that this whole experiment with justice has been a disastrous mistake.

Kate Allen is the director of Amnesty International UK. Since Kate took up the post five years ago, Amnesty has been highly critical of the UK government's role in the "war on terror", failure to act on Guantanamo Bay and asylum policy.

© 2007 The Guardian

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