Still A Few More Chapters To Be Written Before Guantánamo Disappears – OpEd


By Jonathan Power*

“Guantánamo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the law”. Did you say that? Did I? No. It was the president of the United States of America, Barack Obama, speaking in June 2014.

How come that the most powerful man in the world couldn’t open the locks of this unlawful prison? How come the prisoners can’t be transferred for trial and, if convicted, imprisoned in the United States itself? The simple answer is that the Republicans joined by some Democrats in Congress have continually blocked Obama. While it is true that his hands were tied during his first term he didn’t try again after he was re-elected, until in a speech he m de some remarks on the issue, including my opening line. Obama had been prodded to raise the issue again because of a hunger strike by most (about 100) of the 166 inmates.

Despite the speech, Obama couldn’t break the Republican headlock.

Buck McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was willing to discuss Guantánamo with Obama, but first he needed to know what the president would do with “terrorist detainees who are too dangerous to release but cannot be tried”. But why can’t they be tried? – because in US courts, as in all civilized countries, evidence that is produced during torture is not admissible. (Under President George W. Bush, the US tortured many of them until Obama stopped it the day he was sworn in.)

One must deduce from all this that the Republicans will continue to insist that all the prisoners stay in Guantánamo until they die a natural death. (Sotto voce, they whisper that if some of them kill themselves as a result of the hunger strike that will help things along.)

Some of these prisoners are truly dangerous men. But others like Khalid al-Odah from Kuwait, incarcerated for 11 years, whose plight the Financial Times highlighted, who claims he was teaching in Afghanistan at the time of his arrest, had never been accused of beinga member of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Subsequently, following the FT article, he was released into the hands of the Kuwaiti authorities.

At the beginning of his term Obama’s persona was riding high in the Muslim world. But that admiration, made possible by there being, after eight years of President George Bush, a fresh and liberal voice in the White House, slipped away. Despite the withdrawal from Iraq, the announced withdrawal from Afghanistan and the support for the Arab Spring, the combination of Guantánamo and lack of progress on creating fair boundaries for a Palestinian state undermined his standing.

I advocated some time ago in “World Policy Journal”, an influential US foreign policy magazine, that if the prisoners were blocked from being taken for trial in US domestic courts, then the courts should come to Guantánamo to replace the slow-moving military commissions based in the prison which have done an ineffective job in trying to replace the federal court system. (Six prosecutors have resigned in protest.) For many years I hadn’t heard a whimper about this idea. But ten years ago, an article on the opinion page of the New York Times by two Yale University law professors, Bruce Ackerman and Eugene Fidell, developed my suggestion.

The president, they argued, can order this on his own say-so without recourse to Congress. “Previous presidents have established federal civilian courts on territory under American military control. The clearest precedent was set in postwar Germany.”

This doesn’t solve the problem of the handful of detainees deemed too dangerous ever to release. This can be dealt with another day as there are no quick answers. At the least they should be transferred to jails within the US and given normal visiting rights and legal advice.

For whatever reason Obama didn’t take up this suggestion. However, overall, he made progress, reducing the number of detainees from 250 to 40. In early February 2021, President Joe Biden declared his intention to close the facility before he leaves office. Ten detainees have been released from Guantánamo. Last month, the count was still 30 detainees in prison. The Department of Defence has continued to expand the facilities in Guantánamo, including a second courtroom.

This tragic story has, it seems, still a few more chapters to be written.

  • Note: For 17 years, Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune.


IDN-InDepthNews offers news analyses and viewpoints on topics that impact the world and its peoples. IDN-InDepthNews serves as the flagship of the International Press Syndicate Group

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