President-elect Barack Obama should make the
closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility a top priority when he takes
office Jan. 20, U.S. and international human rights groups said Monday.
They are also calling for the abolition of the military commissions that have
begun trying suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo, and for them to be transferred
to the federal courts where due-process protections will enhance the chances
for a fair trial.
"There is no room for patience or delay in these areas," said Anthony
Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),
one of several groups that have been deeply involved in litigation over the
fate of the Guantanamo detainees.
"We hope that President-elect Obama, as soon as he is sworn in, will
take bold action and sign an executive order closing Guantanamo and ending
the sham military commissions there. It is time to restore American values
of justice, due process, and human rights," he added.
Five other groups are urging European governments to accept those Guantanamo
prisoners. There are at least 50 at the moment who will not be charged with
any crime but can't be returned to their home countries for fear they will
be detained and tortured there.
"President-elect Obama has committed to closing Guantanamo, but he is
going to need Europe's help," said Joanne Mariner, director of the Terrorism
and Counter-Terrorism division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), on behalf of Amnesty
International, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Reprieve, and Paris-based
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), as well as HRW.
"European governments could provide much-needed assistance by agreeing
to take in some of the detainees who cannot be sent back home," she stressed.
Since the first terrorist suspects – or what then-Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld
memorably described as "the worst of the worst" – were delivered
there from Afghanistan on Jan. 11, 2002, a total of 775 people, ranging in
age from 13 to 98, have been detained at the Guantanamo base, according to
statistics compiled by the ACLU.
The vast majority of those detainees, it now appears, were innocent of terrorist
activities and had been rounded up by tribal militias and bounty hunters in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite their innocence, many of the prisoners were
subject to "aggressive interrogation techniques" – which human rights
groups have denounced as torture – and other abusive treatment before and
during their stay. It has made Guantanamo, along with the mistreatment documented
by photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a global symbol of the excesses of
Bush's "war on terror" and the loss of Washington's moral standing.
At least four prisoners committed suicide while in detention, and hundreds
participated in periodic hunger strikes to protest the conditions under which
they were being held.
More than 500 prisoners have since been released, the vast majority of them
to their home countries, some under the condition that the receiving country
would detain or place them under surveillance.
As of last week, the Pentagon, which has jurisdiction over the base, said
there were currently "about 255" prisoners, more than 60 of whom
have been cleared for release or transfer but who remain in limbo due to difficulties
in negotiating satisfactory agreements with their home nations, according to
a New York Times investigative study.
The study also reported that 34 of the remaining detainees were seized in
raids in Pakistan in which three major al-Qaeda operatives were also captured;
16 others are accused of past terrorist attacks on U.S. targets before 9/11;
and yet 20 more have been identified as former bodyguards of al-Qaeda chief
Osama bin Laden.
Military commissions set up by the Pentagon to try terrorist suspects have
suffered repeated setbacks not only by the federal courts, including the Supreme
Court, that have found that they failed to comply with basic due process rights
guaranteed by the U.S. and the Geneva Conventions, but also by aggressive challenges
on the part of defense attorneys and even prosecutors to the commissions' procedures
and rules of evidence, including the use of testimony obtained through torture.
Indeed, six years after they were authorized, the military commissions have
so far obtained only two convictions, the most recent just last week.
During his presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly noted how much Washington's
image abroad as a leader of human rights and an exemplar of the rule of law
had suffered as a result of Guantanamo, which he called a "sad chapter
in American history," and he repeatedly pledged to close it.
He and his advisers have also strongly criticized the military commissions
and suggested that those detainees against whom there was credible evidence
of terrorist activity should be tried by the federal courts, that, under some
circumstances, might adopt special rules to prevent sensitive information from
being made public.
Rights groups have by and large argued that the federal criminal justice system
should be adequate. Last May, Human Rights First (HRF), a lawyers' group, released
a review of 120 terrorism cases that concluded that the federal court system
was well equipped to deal with any detainees charged with crimes.
"While commendable that the president-elect is signaling his willingness
to tackle these challenges head on, how and where suspected terrorists are
prosecuted is critically important to restoring America's commitment to human
rights and the rule of law," said HRF director Elisa Massimino Monday.
"Based on our review, Human Rights First believes that the federal criminal
justice system has proven itself highly adaptable to the challenges of prosecuting
complex terrorism cases."
As for the more than 50 detainees, including 17 Uighur men from Xinjiang,
China, who are cleared for release but who cannot be returned home due to concerns
over how they may be treated, rights groups are calling on European countries
to take them in if the U.S. fails to do so.
"This is a key opportunity for both sides of the Atlantic to move beyond
the misguided acts of the war on terror: rendition, secret detention, and torture,"
said Cori Crider, a staff attorney at Reprieve, one of whose clients was returned
to Tunisia, where he was allegedly beaten and threatened with the rape of his
wife and daughter.
"Europe can send a powerful message by reaching out to Obama and providing
a safe alternative for these few people," she added.
"As an important strategic partner of the United States, the European
Union should help the administration relocate these men," said FIDH president,
Souhayr Belhassen, who noted that the Council of Europe's Human Rights commissioner,
Thomas Hammerberg, had made a similar appeal.
On a recent visit to Chile, Amnesty International's Secretary General Irene
Kahn told IPS correspondent Daniela Estrada in an exclusive interview that
her organization had high expectations with regard to Obama's election and
hoped his campaign slogan for "change" would effectively lead to
a change in U.S. human rights policy and concrete measures toward that end
in the international arena.
She said that she hoped the president-elect would shut down Guantanamo, make
public declarations confirming the prohibition of torture and other forms of
mistreatment, and guarantee an independent investigation into human rights
abuses committed under the Bush administration as part of the "war on
In addition, Kahn said Amnesty would also like the Obama administration to
ratify treaties like the Rome Statue, which created the International Criminal
Court, and to play a constructive role in the United Nations Human Rights Council.
(Inter Press Service)