People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 24

June 16, 2013



Black Hole Called Guantanamo Bay


Yohannan Chemarapally


WHEN Barack Obama sought the presidential nomination, he pledged to close down the high security military prison at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, stating that the incarceration of the so called “foreign enemy combatants” was against the norms of international law. He even signed an order in 2009 for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison. But facing strong criticism from the US Congress, he conveniently forgot to fulfil his commitment. American public opinion, not the most knowledgeable at the best of times, is not favourable to the idea of some of the prisoners being relocated in American prisons on the mainland. Prominent politicians, a majority of them Republicans, are of the opinion that the prisoners are too dangerous to be held in American prisons and should continue to be treated as “enemy combatants” and should not be given the benefit of civilian trials.  




The Guantanamo military base, which is located on the south-eastern tip of Cuba currently, holds 166 civilians from various countries on suspicions of being terrorists. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, at least 800 people including 11 children were incarcerated in the prison for many years before being freed. The Bush administration released 532 inmates while the Obama administration has released only 72 so far. The rest, from 22 different countries, have been languishing for the last 11 years, without any charges being framed against them. Human rights groups have described Guantanamo as a “legal black hole” from which there is little hope of return. Obama administration officials have admitted that 92 per cent of those still in the prison have not been Al Qaeda operatives.


Guantanamo itself is illegally occupied by the US. The land was ceded by a quisling Cuban government under the 1903 Cuban-American treaty. Cuba has been forcefully demanding its territory back since the 1959 revolution. The Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, reiterated this demand in a speech at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. “We are deeply concerned about the legal limbo that supports the permanent and atrocious violation of human rights at the illegal naval base in Guantanamo Bay, a Cuban territory that was usurped by the United States, a centre of torture and deaths of prisoners who are under custody,” the Cuban foreign minister told the UNHRC at a recent meeting. He pointed out to the UNHRC that the prisoners in Guantanamo have been held for more than ten years “without any guarantees, without being tried by a court or the right to legal defence.”


The Bush administration had established the high security prison at the naval base in Guantanamo after the September 11, 2001 terror strikes. The prison was specifically set up to hold terrorists and those having suspected links with the Al Qaeda and groups like the Taliban. The prisoners were denied the rights accorded by the American military to other enemy combatants. President Obama has not been able to fulfil his pledge of closing down the prison in the very first year after being elected despite occupying the White House for the last five years. After being re-elected he had again promised to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison.




The inhuman conditions under which the prisoners from various countries are being held are well documented. Some prisoners, unable to bear the torture and daily humiliation. have committed suicide. President Obama has blamed the US lawmakers for not letting him fulfil his commitment but he also let the issue to be slowly put on the backburner. He also blocked the transfer of 56 Yemeni detainees in 2009 from Guantanamo to their homeland despite the American military establishment giving the go ahead. The Obama administration claimed that the heightened activity of the Al Qaeda franchise in Yemen had prompted a rethink on the subject.


There are many senior people in the American security establishment who had expected the American President to fulfil his commitment to close down the Guantanamo prison. Marine general and the commander of the US SOUTHCOM, John Kelly, said that the prisoners had thought that they would be released after the election of Obama to the presidency but now they are “devastated” because that nothing has changed.


Later a mass indefinite hunger strike by a majority of the prisoners in Guantanamo, which has been going on for more than three months, prompted the American president to make another appeal to the US Congress to close down the Guantanamo Bay prison. The strike started after the prisoners complained of being routinely mistreated and subjected to violence by the prison guards. The flashpoint was the alleged confiscations and disrespect to copies of the Quran that were provided to the prisoners. American prison authorities claim that these copies were being used to smuggle medications which was then used in attempted suicides.


Carlos Warner, an American lawyer for a Guantanamo inmate from Kuwait, told CNN that the conditions were already dire in the prison when the authorities lit the fuel on fire by the oppressive search of the men and took away things that they had grown accustomed for years. “This is about frustration; this is about the Obama administration ignoring Guantanamo in every way, shape and form.” Now, 100 of the 166 inmates are on hunger strike and five of them are in hospital in a critical condition. Most of them have suffered dramatic weight losses. Others are being force fed through nasal pipes to keep them alive.


The UN Human Rights Commission has issued a statement saying that feeding hunger strikers against their will was a breach of international law. “It is perceived as torture and inhumane treatment --- and it’s the case --- then it is prohibited by international law,” a spokesman for the UN human rights commissioner said in Geneva. The World Medical Association (WMA), which has 102 members including the United States, had ruled way back in 1991 that forcible feeding is “never ethically acceptable.” The WMA also said that the forced feeding of some detainees “in order to intimidate or coerce other hunger strikers to stop fasting,” was equally unacceptable.




In a recent speech, President Obama stressed the importance of closing down the prison. “It is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive; it is inefficient; it hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens our cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists,” the American president said in a recent speech. Despite the rhetoric, President Obama has so far not used his executive power to free a majority of the prisoners or at least transfer them back to their countries. Though 90 captives were cleared for release three years ago, they continue to languish in Guantanamo mainly because of US Congressional restrictions and the refusal of some Gulf monarchies to accept their citizens.


Susan Hu, a legal fellow at the US based Centre for Constitutional Rights, told the media that it was a “misconception” that the US Congress alone was the obstacle for the release of the prisoners in Guantanamo, “when in fact President Obama needs to be taken to task for not using his (executive) power.” She pointed out that a majority of the prisoners currently lodged in the prison have already been cleared for release. “I think that the only reason they have not been released is because President Obama is not willing to risk his political capital to move towards closing Guantanamo,” she said.  


In 2005, Julia Traver, a lawyer from the same organisation, described the “force feeding” being practised in Guantanamo after talking with some of the inmates there. “Detainees were verbally abused and insulted and were restrained from head to toe. They had shackles and other restraints on their arms, legs, waist, chest, knees and head…. With these restraints in place, they were given intravenous medications,” she said.


In January this year, President Obama signed the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) which, according to civil rights activists, virtually abandons the pledge to close down Guantanamo. The bill barred the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the mainland even for the purpose of a trial in a federal court. It also requires the US defence secretary to comply with very difficult conditions under which a detainee can be repatriated to his home country. The defence secretary would have to get clearance from all the security agencies involved in counter-terrorism for the mere transfer of the prisoners to their native lands. President Obama has closed the US State Department Office that was overseeing the resettlement of the detainees. The White House position that was created to supervise the closing down of the Guantanamo prison has also been lying vacant for some time now.




Meanwhile, the prisoners, most of them incarcerated on the mere suspicion of having terrorist links, have refused to end their hunger strike. Lawyers representing them have said that many of them have lost up to 14 kg in weight and are subsisting only on water.


In the second week of April, an American think tank, the Constitution Project, released a 600 page report detailing decades of war crimes committed by the US. The report was compiled by an 11 member “Task Force on Detainee Treatment.” The report was compiled after the Task Force interviewed many former detainees, US security officials and politicians from many countries including the US. The report covers the treatment of detainees during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. “The events examined in this report are unprecedented in US history” and “that there is little doubt that US personnel committed brutal acts against captives,” the introduction to the report stated.


The introductory statement said that it was after September 11, 2001 that the US president and his top security advisers became directly involved in deciding over “the wisdom, propriety, and legality of inflicting pain on some detainees in our custody.” The report observed that despite this “extraordinary aspect, the Obama administration declined, as a matter of policy” to open a commission of enquiry into the numerous cases of torture committed during the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” The report concluded that the US government “indisputably” engaged in torture which was approved by the “nation’s highest officials.”