The US Supreme Court’s recent decision not to take a new look at the rights of foreign prisoners held for the past decade at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba effectively seals the fate of the 169 foreigners remaining in the notorious prison. Of those still stuck behind bars, 87 have been long-approved for release, some as far back as during the George W. Bush administration. The figure means that almost half of the prisoners still held at Guantanamo — men that the US government acknowledges it does not want to continue holding or to put on trial — have been waiting for their freedom for between four and eight years, a period which is as shocking as it is perplexing. And it appears they will have to wait even longer.
If President Obama was to be believed, today there would be no Guantanamo. After his inauguration in 2009 Obama announced the closure of Guantanamo within a year. The decision was received with much fanfare by human rights organizations in the US and abroad. But it appears that Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense in Bush’s second term and who was kept in his post by Obama, had a different opinion about closing Guantanamo. Gates is reported to have asked Obama to keep a little more than 100 detainees in indefinite detention there because they constituted an immediate danger to the security of the US but could not be put on trial since any court would dismiss whatever evidence had been secured against them on the grounds that it was extracted under duress. If these detainees were released, Gates said, they would rejoin Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups and attack the US again.
So Obama never kept his promise of closing Guantanamo, and in fact the White House hasn’t even tried. The US executive branch is allowed to abduct prisoners, detain them indefinitely, and decide unilaterally whether or not they are prisoners of war and whether or not the Geneva Conventions apply to them — which is not a decision to be taken by individual countries.
Four years after pronouncing that Guantanamo detainees who face no charges have a right to challenge their ongoing confinement, the justices recently rejected appeals which argued that the federal appeals court in Washington has largely ignored the high court’s command. But by refusing to hear these cases, the Supreme Court abandons the promise of its own ruling guaranteeing detainees a constitutional right to a review of the legality of their detention.
This is no time for Obama to be indecisive. He still has six months in office and can right a wrong and set out to close Guantanamo which he pledged to do even before he became president. Perhaps Guantanamo is no longer in the news as when Obama was on the campaign trail. Still, Guantanamo must be closed and the remaining prisoners must be tried in US courts or repatriated. It is disappointing that Obama has not ended this failed experiment, for there is no detainee at Guantanamo who cannot be tried and should not be tried in the regular US federal courts system.