Obama’s struggle to close Gitmo

Dozens of people in orange jumpsuits, many with black hoods on their heads, marched outside the White House last week in a grim ritual that has become an annual affair for American groups demanding the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, or Gitmo.

On Jan 11, which marked the 13th anniversary of the prison, similar groups disrupted a session of Congress and held a protest outside the home of former vice-president Dick Cheney, the man they associate with the creation of the United States' most controversial facility.

That the protests are continuing six years after President Barack Obama pledged to shut it down reflects the complex nature of the issue.

On his second day in office in 2009, Mr Obama pledged to shut down the prison within one year. He would discover quite quickly how difficult it was to keep that promise.

Terrorism concerns are at a high in the week since the attacks in Paris: The US has arrested a man for allegedly plotting an attack inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group on the Capitol building, and sentenced radical British cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri to life in prison.

Most agree that closing Guantanamo Bay will be harder than ever.

Professor Matthew Waxman of the Columbia Law School in New York said: "The rise of ISIS and the recent terrorist events strengthen the political hand of those in the US Congress who oppose closing Guantanamo and raise the political risks to President Obama of pushing forward."

Perhaps the most intractable problem the US administration faces is what to do with the 50 or so detainees it considers too dangerous to release, yet are unsuitable for prosecution.

Prosecutors say there is not enough admissible evidence to secure a conviction. Most evidence obtained through torture cannot be used in a trial.

The option of transferring them to US prisons so that Guantanamo can be closed faces strong political opposition from the Republicans keen to keep the facility open. With terror on the minds of Americans, the Republican arguments hold more sway now.

Congress has already enacted legislation banning the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the US for any reason, and legislation tabled last week seeks to place a moratorium on transfers anywhere else.

If it passes, it means the administration cannot move detainees out of the prison and Guantanamo will be forced to remain open. Over the past six years, there have been many moments when it looked like the closure was well under way.

Mr Obama has, throughout his term, made sure that new terror suspects were not sent to Guantanamo. This was to avoid accusations that they were not given due process and to ensure the suspects did not get entangled in the legal and political mess facing any detainee who has to be transferred or prosecuted.

The likes of Abu Hamza, the cleric convicted for his role in the 1998 kidnapping of Western tourists in Yemen, shoe bomber Richard Reid, underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Faisal Shahzad, the man behind the attempted bombing of Times Square, were dealt with through federal courts. All are serving life sentences in US maximum security prisons.

The release of the Central Intelligence Agency torture report last month, detailing inhumane interrogation techniques used in Guantanamo and other sites, also seemed to provide fodder for those calling for the closure of the prison.

The US has been able to detain people it deems as "enemy combatants" without charging them on the basis that they are not criminals but prisoners of war. The end of the war in Afghanistan will mean the US could lose the legal basis for detaining the dozen or so Taleban-linked prisoners.

Though the current detainee population is the smallest it has been since Guantanamo was founded in 2002 - just 122 remain from a high of almost 800 - there is no endgame in sight.

Mr Obama has never given a specific plan for dealing with the remaining detainees, and the process cannot move forward without one. "It's a paradox," said Mr Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney of the Guantanamo Project at the Centre for Constitutional Rights.

"You are concerned about terrorism, especially lone-wolf attacks, yet you keep this symbol of outrage open... Keeping it open provides a tremendous symbol for those recruiting (other people) who would do us harm."


This article was first published on Jan 18, 2015.
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