Guantanamo - Obama could do better

Guantánamo - Obama could do better
Obama has yet to make any commitment to dismantle the key components of George Bush's attack on human rights

Press Statement from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC) and Scotland Stop the War Coalition
5.30pm Thursday 22 January 2009,

Scottish-based human rights group Scotland Against Criminalising Communities and the Scotland Stop the War Coalition are giving a cautious welcome to orders signed by President Obama today to close Guantánamo Bay and to put an end to some of the harshest interrogation techniques. But we are dismayed that Obama has so far made no commitment to permanently abandon trial by the notorious Military Commissions and that his comments during the signing ceremony indicate that some Guantanamo prisoners may continue to be held indefinitely without trial. We think Obama could do better. He needs to be a great deal firmer in dealing with the legacy that George Bush has left him.

Moazzam Begg - a former Guantánamo prisoner who will be speaking at public meetings in Scotland on 30th and 31st January - described Obama's earlier move to suspend hearings of the Guantánamo Bay Military Commissions as "too little too late." Barack Obama can't help his late arrival on the scene. But he has a long way still to go if he is to overtake the charge of "too little."

The one-year timetable set out in the executive order to close Guantánamo is far too long, and the order gives far too much leeway to intelligence and security agencies that have already dragged the reputation of the US through the mud. A further executive order signed today will prohibit the CIA from secretly holding detainees in third-country prisons - the so-called "black sites" run by the CIA in eastern Europe and elsewhere. But no plans have yet been announced for the release of prisoners held without charge or trial and without access to lawyers at US bases like Bagram, Kandahar and Khost in Afghanistan and at US bases elsewhere in the world.

And we see no sense at all in Obama's plans to send more troops to Afghanistan. They will add petrol to the flames of the war that spawned the human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay and that continues to threaten the peace of the world. The language of the order to close Guantánamo conveys a welcome sense of urgency. It talks of "promptly" closing the prison camp, "prompt" reviews of the facts relating to the prisoners and "prompt" arrangements for the "disposition" of the prisoners. Unfortunately, none of this promptness has found its way into the concrete measures contained in the order.

Guantánamo is to be closed "no later than one year" from today, and any prisoners still being held are then to be "returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility." But this should be the starting point, not the end point, of US moves towards legality. It could and should be done in weeks, at most. US officials simply can't be relied on to take the Presidential hint and free the prisoners well before the deadline expires. They are the same officials that have spent seven years defying international law, dodging and ducking US law, and engaging in running battles with the US Supreme Court.

Barack Obama has yet to make any commitment to dismantle the key components of George Bush's attack on human rights. An incomprehensible paragraph in the order to close Guantanamo refers to "other disposition" for prisoners who are neither transferred nor released nor prosecuted. This is far too vague. President Obama should have seized the opportunity to rule out any form of so-called "preventative detention." He should also have made a commitment to end trial by the kangaroo courts called "Military Commissions." Instead, he has suspended them pending a review. The White House told reporters today that "military commissions, perhaps with revised authorities, would remain an option."

Worse still, Obama is reported to have said at the signing ceremony for the order to close Guantanamo that some detainees cannot be tried because of problems with the evidence against them but cannot be released because they are too dangerous. In other words, they are to be punished for having been tortured.

The men held at Guantánamo Bay have been kidnapped. That crime needs to be undone. They are currently presumed guilty until proven innocent. That presumption needs to be reversed. These two steps are the foundations of justice. They don't require months of review. They require a decision.

We agree with the US-based Center for Constitutional Rights that closing Guantánamo Bay is easy. There are three simple steps to justice:

  1. send those who can go home home,
  2. secure safe haven for those who cannot, and
  3. charge those who can be charged then try them in ordinary federal criminal court.

Fears that a handful of the 250 or so remaining Guantánamo prisoners may pose a threat to the United States are misplaced. The intentions - real or imagined - of those men are dwarfed by events beyond the gates of Guantánamo. The real danger facing the people of the United States comes from the wars being waged by the US across a great arc of territory from Somalia to Afghanistan and the North West Frontier of Pakistan. The victims of those wars - the dead, the injured, the homeless, the refugees - are already numbered in millions. Hundreds of millions more people stand on the brink of being engulfed. It's time for a change. That change has to come fast, or it will be too late.

Notes for editors:

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

7:00pm Friday 30 January, Adelaides, 209 Bath Street, Glasgow , G2 4HZPresented 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 1ELPresented 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