Charge or release - it's time for decisive action over Guantanamo

Guantanamo is becoming a policy fiasco for Obama
Charge or release – it's time for decisive action, says human rights group

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC)
Sunday 18 January 2008

Scottish-based human rights group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities says that nothing less than a move to immediately charge the Guantánamo prisoners or release them will rescue President-elect Barack Obama from confusion and illegality.

The group is giving its support to public meetings being held in Glasgow and Edinburgh at the end of the month with former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg and former Guantánamo guard Christopher Arendt.

Nothing is more symbolic of the sheer awfulness of the so-called "war on terror" than the illegal prison camp at a Guantánamo Bay. Doing something about it will inevitably be one of the first items on Barack Obama's agenda when he is sworn in on Tuesday.

What exactly will he do? Rumours abound. He will sign an order to close Guantánamo Bay during his first week at the White House. Or he won't be able to close it until late in his term of office. Or both. The one thing that all the "sources close to Obama" agree on is that he has no idea what to do with the prisoners.

This is a triumph of spin over substance. It's like saying that every child on the planet should get at least one meal every day and then adding that you aren't sure whether any food should be served with the meal. No one cares what happens to the little patch of territory that the US leases from Cuba. We just want to know when the prisoners held there will get justice.

Guant&namo is fast becoming a policy fiasco for the President-elect. He said in November that "America does not torture." But it does. Susan Crawford, head of the Military Commissions set up to "try" Guantánamo prisoners, said last week that Mohammed al-Qahtani – a Saudi national – had been tortured at Guantanamo Bay. She said that because of this he can't be put on "trial." Disgracefully, she told the Washington Post that she would nevertheless be hesitant to let him go because he is a "a very dangerous man." Apparently she thinks he should be punished for having been tortured.

Only decisive action by Obama can head off the fiasco. The Guantánamo prisoners have been enduring intensive interrogations and torture for years. With all this material at their disposal, prosecutors should be able to draft charges for each prisoner in a few hours. If they can't, it's safe to assume that there's nothing to charge the prisoner with. Charges that deal with thought crime or crimes of association and don't relate to a recognisably criminal offence should be trashed. The charges that remain should be put before a fair and open court within a reasonable period of time. Prisoners with no charges against them should be released right away.

But how, exactly, are the prisoners to be released? Some of them are likely to face further abuse or torture if returned to their own countries. The Bush administration seems to have been trying recently to get European countries to take released prisoners. Few countries want them. So men who have endured years of torment are being treated like unwelcome parcels of old clothes. The wrangle is shameful. Decisive action is needed.

This isn't a matter of helping the US out of its difficulties. It's a question of doing right by men who have been badly wronged. No one – not Barack Obama, not ministers and heads of government in Europe, not human rights organisations – has any business trying to spare the blushes of the Bush administration or of institutions that did its bidding and ignored their obligations to conscience and international law.

The main responsibility for Guantánamo rests with the US, notwithstanding the involvement of other countries in rendition and torture. So the US should immediately offer a home to any released prisoners who want to live there. The rest of the world owes the prisoners a debt of common humanity, and most of the rest of the world also owes them for years of complicity and silence. Every decent country in the world should be glad to offer a home to any released prisoner who wants it.

While this is being arranged, the men must be free. There is no choice about that, since there is no legal basis for holding them.

Countries like Britain that have links to particular prisoners need to be especially pro-active in pressing for their release and in offering them a home. Three British residents - Shaker Aamer, Binyam Mohamed and Ahmed Belbacha - are still held at Guantanamo. Binyam Mohamed suffered extreme torture en route to Guantánamo Bay. It was revealed on Friday that he has been on hunger strike for the last three weeks. All three men need the urgent assistance of the British government.

Could a directive to charge the Guantánamo prisoners or release them lead to a few guilty men being set free along with the innocent? It's not very likely, but if it happens, what of it?

The prisoners have already been deprived of liberty for longer than people convicted for any but the most serious of crimes. They have endured torments that should never be imposed on anyone in any circumstances. Justice has been been trampled into the dust relentlessly, year after year. To reward the torturers by leaving their victims to rot will do far more harm to life, liberty and the rule of justice than the the release of a few more "dangerous men" into a world already full of them – some occupying high office.

Detention at Guantánamo is illegal. As soon as Barack Obama is sworn in, he will become responsible for the crime. There is only one thing he can do. The world is waiting for him to do it.

Note for editors

Former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg and former Guantánamo guard Christopher Arendt will ne spealing at public meetings Scotland as part of the "Two Sides: One Story tour" arranged by Cageprisoners:

7:30pm (doors open 7.00pm) Friday 30 January, Adelaides, 209 Bath Street, Glasgow , G2 4HZ
Presented by Cageprisoners, supported by SACC, Glasgow Stop the War Coalition, the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Scottish Media Workers Against the War

2:30pm Saturday 31 Jan, Augustine Church, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1EL
Presented by Cageprisoners, supported by SACC, Edinburgh Stop the War Coalition and the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Islamic Society of Edinburgh University and Scottish Media Workers Against the War