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Still Shutting Down Guantanamo, Still Saying "No" to Torture

The Powerful Say "Be Patient," And the Powerless Have To Wait

Matt Vogel

Every weekday, folks from Witness Against Torture's 100 Days Campaign catch one of Washington DC's S busses, making our way to the White House for our vigil.  From 11-1 we stand in front of the White House in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, holding banners and signs calling for the immediate closure of the prisons at Guantánamo.  The hood is something of a veil, obscuring nearly everything we can see, immediately putting us in a different, more reflective and, for me, intensely focused, space.  Here, trying to ward off the cold and snow, sleet and rain, the day's "messaging" melts away, and I'm often left with the bare basics of why we're there: the prisoners and their families.  With my vision impaired, it's not uncommon for me to close my eyes, thinking and praying about what we've done to those men.  The hood, though, doesn't drown out sound, and so I often hear the questions posed by the passers-by.  Chief among them is "Why are you here?  Isn't it closed already?"

Being under the hood, I find myself in an interesting spot.  Ours is a solemn vigil, silent and, for the most part, still.  So, I won't – and don't – respond to those questions.  The folks who are out leafleting will do that.  Sometimes I try to listen, though, to think about what I would say.  The simple answer, of course, is no.  No, it's not closed, no, there are still men there. No. 

I write this in early February, just a short time after President Obama signed the executive order "closing" Guantánamo.  We didn't get these kinds of questions before his executive order. No, before that order, we were greeted most often with warmth and support, approval and encouragement, not confusion, exasperation and even subtle mockery.  It's not that these reactions bother me – they don't at all.  What I find most interesting is that, for the most part, the reactions changed with a stroke of a pen, as if that one signature magically freed the men in Guantánamo and wiped away the physical and mental scars we've cut into them.   Guantánamo simply hasn't gone away, as much as we might wish it would've, and, for the men held there and their families, it likely never will.

We began our presence in Washington on January 11, the seventh anniversary of the transfer of the first prisoners to Guantánamo. That day, over 200 people gathered to hear speakers, to process through the streets of the capitol and to mark the beginning of yet another year of captivity.   Puppets designed and built by Sue, Hector, Jorge and their crew helped to dramatize the ways we've hidden so much of our best selves in a search for security driven by fear – and helped us to imagine a different world.  That day began our liquid-only fast, which would last until the inauguration. Over 100 people from around the country joined in the fast, and about 25 or so lived together in Washington for the nine days, sharing juices and working together for the closure of the prisons. We came together from north and south, east and west to fast as a means of repentance for the horrors done in our names, to fast as an act of solidarity with the over 70 men in Guantánamo on hunger strike (35 of whom are being force-fed).  In reflecting on these men in particular, men who had been robbed of every tool to resist their treatment but their bodies, we came to see and understand our fast as the embodiment of our desire to see the prisons closed, as our collective "no" enfleshed.

Fasting has a way of focusing one's thoughts and energies, and over the nine days we found ourselves increasingly drawn to the Guantánamo prisoners and their families, linked by even the tiniest of threads.  Their words – poems, mostly – began and ended our days.  Their stories would suddenly puncture our thoughts, a desperate hold on our consciences that would not abate.  We seemed to float throughout the city in our orange jumpsuits and black hoods, haunting images of the men pushed away, reminders of the humanity our nation has tried so hard to extinguish.

We broke the fast on the morning of inauguration day.  We processed through the crowds, moving as orange and black ghosts, reminding ourselves and the many who gathered around us for leaflets and photographs that still there were people there.  We stood, clad in orange, watching President Obama take the oath of office.  There he was, the man who'd promised to put an end to it all.

And then, he did; he signed the executive orders closing Guantánamo and the CIA's black sites and ending torture.  Suddenly the men there were gone, mere afterthoughts to the more pressing political and legal issues of how it was all to be done.   The details came rushing in, pushing out the prisoners and leaving in their place questions about timelines, legal options, new courts and potential jails, questions the men don't have the luxury of asking, much less waiting for answers to, quite frankly.  In a year, we were told, we would be able address all of the various challenges posed by the question of closing Guantánamo.  One more year.


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But does Ahmed Zaid Salem Zuhair have another year?  A forty-four year-old Saudi Arabian man, Mr. Zuhair has been on hunger strike since mid-2005.  His forced-feeding began shortly after that.  In November, when his lawyer met with him, Mr. Zuhair weighed a little over 100 pounds and described the brutal hours-long force-feeding process as a "saw cutting through my spine."  By that point, Mr. Zuhair was vomiting frequently.  Seriously worried about Mr. Zuhair's health, his lawyer filed an emergency motion in federal court which included a statement from a doctor who'd reviewed the lawyer's notes (independent medical personnel are not allowed to see the Guantánamo prisoners).  The doctor testified that Mt. Zuhair's "profound weight loss, associated with constant vomiting, is a serious and potentially life-threatening medical problem which the medical staff at Guantánamo have failed to address."  Will it really take another year to sort out the challenges posed by Mr. Zuhair's situation?

Or, could any of us tell the Uighurs they must wait one more year?  These seventeen Chinese Muslims have been held in Guantánamo since 2002, captured in Afghanistan by bounty hunters who turned them over to the US, and have been cleared for release since 2003.  For over five years, they have been locked up, wrongly imprisoned and waiting to get out.  But, under US and international law, the US cannot send them back to China, for they legitimately fear intense persecution from the Chinese government – the Uighurs are among the most persecuted peoples in China.  The Chinese government, for its part, has successfully pressured other nations who might take them not to, leaving the US as the only place to which they can be released. 

In October, after the US government dropped their classification as enemy combatants, and informed by the Boumediene case, the third Supreme Court victory for Guantánamo prisoners, US District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina held that their continued imprisonment was unlawful and ordered them released into his courtroom.  The Uighurs' lawyers assembled assistance from the US Uighur community, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and other religious groups in welcoming and supporting the men.  But, the Bush Administration appealed the order, whisking them from the brink of release (yet again) back into Guantánamo's grim prisons.  All President Obama has to do is drop the appeal.  There has not been, and is not now, any legal basis, any security condition, much less any moral or humane reason, for extending the imprisonment of the Uighurs even a day longer, much less a year.  

For years, Guantánamo lawyers have told us that the evidence against the vast majority of men in the prison is laughable.  The Center for Constitutional Rights, in a recent report, has shown that the greatest factor determining whether or not one is still held in Guantánamo is not innocence or guilt or even how dangerous one is thought to be, but one's nationality.  At its height, Guantánamo held approximately 800 prisoners; at this writing there are roughly 245 men left.  Just under 100 of them are Yemenis, with the next largest group from Saudi Arabia.  The Europeans held there were among the first to be released, followed by prisoners from other countries closely allied with the US.  In such an arbitrary system, why another year?  We see in the Guantánamo prisoners the truth of a remark a close friend made at Mass here in Washington one day: the powerful say "be patient," and the powerless have to wait.

In reality, the men in Guantánamo are and have always been nothing more than mere pawns in so many political games.  They are pawns in the political and diplomatic games nations play with each other.  Nothing illustrates this as well as the Uighurs, caught between the US on one hand and China on the other.  They have been pawns in the Bush Administration's efforts to redefine executive power.  These so-called "worst of the worst" were manipulated and used in an effort to create conditions for the expansion of the powers of the presidency; they were tortured to strengthen a handful of legal theories.  And, these men have been and continue to be pawns in our search for somebody to blame for the attacks of September 11, 2001.  We locked them up and now appear ready to let them out at some point, and would like to forget about the whole thing.  Those who have been charged with crimes relating to those attacks have seen their prosecutions proceed not with justice or the truth about that day in mind, but strictly as a means for politicians of all sorts of stripes to win political points.  Guantánamo may be closed on paper, but for the 245 pawns still there, it is not closed and likely never will be.  No piece of paper will return to the hundreds of men that have been held there the lives they led before, nor will it return to their children, parents or wives, then men they knew – nobody and nothing can do that. 

Many of these prisoners have seen at least three important pieces of paper from the Supreme Court come and go, with the hopes of ending Guantánamo as we know it rising and falling each time.  These pieces of paper, these Supreme Court decisions together with this new Executive Order, are necessary, but Guantánamo is not closed and will not be until the last man is gone.  The details do matter, and we do owe it to the prisoners to make sure Guantánamo is closed and closed in a good and just way, but, more fundamentally, we owe it to the men in Guantánamo and their families not to lose them and their basic humanity amid the political maneuvering and partisan positioning.  That is our moral duty, to them and to ourselves, for when we lose sight of their dignity, we lose sight of our own.  And so, we're still out there in front of the White House and we're continuing on with our 100 Days Campaign – please join us.  Yes, we can close Guantánamo.  No, we can't wait another year.

Matt Vogel, a member of Witness Against Torture, lives on Staten Island, NY when he is not part of the 100 Days Campaign to Close Guantanamo and End Torture.

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