I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us— just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.
Ever since it became apparent, during the Bush administration, that there were wrongly detained prisoners at Guantánamo who could not be safely repatriated, certain principled groups and individuals have pushed for those men to be given new homes in the United States, the country responsible for their lost years of arbitrary detention and abuse.
From the beginning, however, voices have also been raised in opposition to these calls, even though US officials realized early on that too many “Mickey Mouse detainees” were being sent to Guantánamo from Afghanistan, as Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, the commander of Guantánamo until October 2002, explained to the Los Angeles Times later that year. Officials also realized that some of these men — and boys — couldn’t be safely repatriated, but no one in a position of authority thought about granting political asylum to any of them.
The situation came to a head with the case of the Uighurs, Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, who had escaped persecution in their homeland, and had only one enemy — the Chinese Communist government. Twenty-two Uighurs had been seized and sent to Guantánamo, but when the situation became tense for the administration, a third country was found for them instead.
That country was Albania, and on May 5, 2006, just three days before five of the Uighurs were due to have their habeas corpus petitions considered by the Court of Appeals in Washington D.C., they were flown to Tirana, and given new homes in a UN refugee center.
In Bush’s dying days in the White House, the remaining Uighurs were the first Guantánamo prisoners to win their habeas corpus petitions in the District Court in Washington D.C., in October 2008, and Judge Ricardo Urbina went so far as to call their continued detention unconstitutional, and to demand their release in the US. The government appealed, however, and obtained a stay from the Court of Appeals.
When President Obama took over, and promised to close Guantánamo within a year, there were high hopes that he would realize that releasing cleared prisoners who couldn’t be repatriated into the United States would not only be appropriate, but would also send a positive signal to other countries, who were also being asked to offer new homes to those who couldn’t return home safely from Guantánamo.
Unfortunately, the President disagreed. In February 2009, the Justice Department pushed for the Appeals Court to rule that it was not up to the courts to order Guantánamo prisoners to be released into the United States, which they were happy to do, ruling that decisions about immigration were for the executive branch to make, and not for the courts — even when those seeking immigration were innocent men kidnapped and taken to Guantánamo to be held and abused for seven years.
Three months later, when White House Counsel Greg Craig had tried to make amends for this appalling decision, and was close to finalizing a plan to bring some of the Uighurs to live in the US, President Obama ditched the plan when Republicans got wind of it, and threatened to use it against him.
Around the same time, Congress stepped in, turning down a request by the administration for $80 million to close Guantánamo, and in November 2009, as part of a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, lawmakers approved a measure stating that Guantánamo prisoners could only be sent to the US mainland for prosecution, and not for resettlement.
The Amherst, Leverett and Berkeley resolutions
Just after Congress passed this legislation, the town of Amherst, in the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts, fought back, passing a resolution, at a Special Town meeting on November 4, 2009, in which representatives of the town “urge[d] Congress to repeal the ban on releasing cleared detainees into the United States,” and promised to “welcome such cleared detainees into our community as soon as the ban is lifted.”
The community in Amherst gave the following reasons:
- because President Obama “vowed to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base by January 2010″;
- because “many detainees at Guantánamo have been cleared by our government of wrongdoing and have been determined to pose no threat to the United States”; because “many of these detainees cannot be repatriated because they are either stateless or fear the harm awaiting them if returned to their home country”;
- because “our government has asked other countries to accept cleared detainees but has banned their settlement in the United States”; because “these detainees have suffered unjust imprisonment for many years”;
- because “the Pioneer Valley has many resources to help such detainees with trauma from their imprisonment”; and
- because “the Pioneer Valley has welcomed in the past many refugees from a variety of traumatic experiences in other countries.”
Amherst established an important precedent with this resolution, which was also adopted in nearby Leverett on April 24, 2010, and on October 25, 2011, the City of Berkeley, in California, also passed a similar resolution (PDF), stating that Berkeley “supports the closure of Guantánamo as called for by President Obama in January 2009,” and is “unwilling to turn its back on cleared detainees still being held at Guantánamo,” and also that it “urges Congress to remove bans on movement of cleared detainees to the US,” and, “upon the lifting of Congressional bans, would welcome one or more cleared detainees into the Berkeley community thanks to private support.”
The community in Berkeley gave a number of reasons, including the following:
- because “[t]he residents of Berkeley have welcomed to our City those who have been forced into exile, and who have come fleeing torture and death,” as affirmed by the Berkeley City Council in 1971, when Berkeley was declared a City of Refuge;
- because “President Barack Obama stated in January 2009 that the prison at Guantánamo would be closed by January 2010″;
- because “despite US Supreme Court rulings on the right to due process” — in Rasul v. Bush, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, and Boumediene v. Bush — “Guantánamo remains open,” and those held include “those who could not be sent to their home countries because of post-transfer treatment concerns”;
- because “Guantánamo has become emblematic of the gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the US Government in the name of fighting terrorism”;
- because “Guantánamo detainees have undergone a wide range of interrogation procedures that constitute torture or maltreatment, including but not limited to sensory deprivation and prolonged isolation”;
- because “Amnesty International USA states: ‘… the indefinite and arbitrary nature of the circumstances of their detention has led to a steep decline in the mental health of many incarcerated at Guantánamo …’ (email May 12, 2011 from AI USA Chair Carole Nagengast to Peace & Justice Commissioner Rita Maran)”; and
- because “Congresswoman Barbara Lee writes: ‘Guantánamo … has led the world to question America’s commitment to the rule of law, due process, and the rejection of torture as an acceptable interrogation practice …’ (Letter of May 26, 2011 to Rita Maran).”
The Resolution came about thanks to strong support from Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), the Amnesty International USA Board of Directors Chair Carole Nagengast, and Sister Marianne Farina of the Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology in Berkeley.
The ongoing need for US communities to resolve to resettle prisoners from Guantánamo
Over ten years since Guantánamo opened, the need for other communities to follow the example of Amherst, Leverett and Berkeley remains as strong as ever. Despite the failure of the Obama administration, Congress and the US courts to allow any endangered prisoner to be rehoused in the United States, 17 countries in total have, during Obama’s Presidency, taken in 39 prisoners — from Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, as well as 14 of the 17 remaining Uighurs who could not be safely repatriated.
The most recent releases were two Uighurs, who were flown to a new home in El Salvador last month, 15 months after the last prisoner was released. That huge delay was largely due to Congress, where lawmakers imposed further restrictions on the administration’s ability to release prisoners, banning the transfer of any prisoner to the US mainland for any reason, and also imposing onerous restrictions on releases to any country for any reason.
Those restrictions were defused in the National Defense Authorization Act, which contains a waiver that can be used by the President to bypass Congress, but as the Washington Post explained in an editorial on April 27 — and as we reported here last week — a home has still not been found for the last three Uighurs, whose release was ordered three years and seven months ago, and therefore they should be given new homes in the United States, to prevent them from — possibly — spending the rest of their lives in Guantánamo.
Here at “Close Guantánamo,” we are concerned that, in total, 87 of the 169 prisoners still held at Guantánamo have been cleared for release but are still held, and we believe it is appropriate that, if these men cannot be safely rehoused elsewhere, then they should be offered homes in the US.
When Berkeley passed its resolution, those who proposed it also stated that they would be happy to accept two prisoners in particular — Djamel Ameziane, an Algerian recently profiled here, and Ravil Mingazov, the last Russian in Guantánamo, who I have written about here. In 2009, Amherst also called for Ravil Mingazov to be welcomed to live in their town, along with another Algerian, Ahmed Belbacha, profiled here, who was cleared for release in 2007, but has spent the last five years resisting his forced repatriation, because he fears that he will be imprisoned on false charges after a show trial.
For further information, please feel free to contact Rita Maran at UC Berkeley, who is a commissioner with the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, and led the effort to draft Berkeley’s resolution, and Nancy Talanian, the executive director of “No More Guantánamos,” the organization coordinating the groups within the US calling for prisoners to be resettled in their communities. When the Berkeley resolution was passed, Nancy commended the City Council and the resolution’s supporters, and said, “Dozens of innocent men remain in Guantánamo simply because they cannot safely return to their home countries, and US allies rightly question why they must welcome all of them when the US refuses to take any. Berkeley’s resolution is a necessary step toward closing the prison with justice and restoring our country’s commitment to human rights.”