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January 27, 2009

Muslim World Hails End of a Despised Symbol


by William Fisher

While the decision of President Barack Obama to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay Cuba and end the practice of interrogation techniques that violate international law made front-page news throughout the United States, press reaction in the Middle East was far less extensive – but generally favorable.

One reason is that, while in the U.S., Obama's actions topped all other news on Jan. 22, the day he signed his landmark executive orders, the attention of most of the Arab world was still riveted on Israel's assault on Gaza.

Nonetheless, the Guantanamo story was addressed in news reports or editorials by most of the major media in Arab and other Muslim countries, and many government spokespersons and human rights advocates spoke out on the subject.

Under the headline, "News of Guantanamo's Closure Welcomed Worldwide," the Jordan Times wrote, "Former detainees, human-rights advocates, and government officials around the world welcomed President Barack Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center." Obama's actions, it said, "helped restore their faith in the United States."

Beirut's Daily Star wrote of the negative effects U.S. interrogation practices have had on the observance of human rights by Arab governments. "With public knowledge of the American use of waterboarding in Guantanamo and elsewhere, why would Arab leaders promote human rights and political reforms? The closing of Guantanamo will send an important message that torture will not be tolerated by the Obama administration," the paper said.

Calling Guantanamo "a dark spot in U.S. history" and "a symbol of injustice and oppression," Egypt's Al-Ahram wrote, "The prison is arguably one of the worst mockeries of international law, which was itself drafted partly by American legal experts. Past U.S. administrations may not have been devoted followers of the Geneva Conventions, but neither have they ever discarded international treaties as openly and as arrogantly as the current one."

"Former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, a personal friend of President Bush, mastered this art in a way that allowed his bosses to adorn their gratuitous actions with the air of legitimacy. Guantanamo was his ultimate masterpiece."

In Dubai, the leading newspaper wrote that Obama's "swift action on the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba and the Middle East on his first day in office that sent out the message to the world that change has indeed come to America and it's already started showing concrete results."

In Saudi Arabia, Arab News wrote, "To many around the world, the decision by Obama to close the reviled prison within a year is welcome news. But it is especially so in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where the detention facility has become a symbol of U.S. injustice toward Muslims and Arabs around the world."

Several years ago, Saudis were second only to Yemenis as the second largest group of detainees at Guantanamo. According to a Saudi human rights lawyer, at least 13 Saudi families are still awaiting freedom for relatives detained there.

Similar views were also expressed elsewhere. In an editorial, the News of Pakistan wrote that the paper welcomed what it called "Barack Obama's quick decisions on Guantanamo," and said "they should act as a step that aids him in his hopes to establish a new relationship with the Muslim world."

In Afghanistan, the press reported that President Hamid Karzai hailed the inauguration of Obama as the start of a "promising new era of understanding" between Kabul and Washington. Its reports said Karzai's office reiterated calls for Guantanamo to be closed.

In Indonesia, home to more Muslims than any other nation, the media quoted Makarim Wibisono, a former Indonesian ambassador to the United Nations, as saying that Obama's call was "a good sign leading to the closure of the camp."

But other Indonesians were critical of Obama's failure to directly refer to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Israel's military onslaught in Gaza in his inaugural address.

Maskuri Abdilah, head of the Nahdlatul Ulama – Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, with some 60 million followers – said Obama dodged the one issue at the core of the Muslim world's concerns.

"It is very good that Obama wants to find a 'new way forward' with the Muslim world, but first he has to change U.S. policy over Israel and the Palestinian conflict," he told Agence France Press.

Obama's dramatic action came on his second day in office. He issued three executive orders – one on Guantanamo, a second on interrogation, and a third forming an inter-agency task force to make recommendations regarding the disposition of the estimated 250 prisoners still held at Guantanamo.

The Guantanamo order immediately suspended all military commission proceedings and ordered the closure of the Guantanamo detention facility within one year. It further directed the attorney general to lead a process of individual case reviews to determine which prisoners may be transferred to third countries and which detainees may be prosecuted in accordance with U.S. law.

The order put an end to the secret interrogation techniques authorized for use by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), such as forced standing, forced nudity, and exposure to frigid temperatures. It also ended secret CIA detentions and required that the International Committee of the Red Cross be given access to all prisoners in the custody of U.S. intelligence agencies.

And, finally, it sought to clarify any ambiguity created by flawed Justice Department legal memoranda justifying harsh interrogation techniques by ordering all U.S. personnel to immediately cease relying on all such past legal advice.

The task force, mandated in the third order, is to develop policies for the detention, trial, transfer, release, or other disposition of individuals captured or apprehended in connection with armed conflicts and counterterrorism operations.

A fourth order calls for a review of the case of a single prisoner, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who has been held by the Defense Department for more than five years in facilities within the United States. Al-Marri is the only individual being held as an enemy combatant within the United States. Because he is not held at Guantánamo Bay, al-Marri is not covered by the review mandated in the Review and Disposition Order.

Where to send detainees who have already been cleared for release, and those found not guilty in subsequent trials, is one of the most contentious problems facing the Obama administration. There is considerable opposition in Congress to any of the detainees being released into the U.S.

Thus far, other countries have been reluctant to take any of the prisoners, who have been described by former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials as "the worst of the worst."

Only Albania and Sweden have taken in a few inmates.

China is demanding the return of Chinese Muslims detained at Guantanamo once the facility is shut down. Some 17 Chinese detainees have been cleared for release but Washington fears they could be mistreated or even tortured if they are turned over to China. Late last year, a federal judge ordered these prisoners – known as Uighurs – released into the U.S. But the government appealed his ruling, and the case is now pending in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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