Gitmo: Obama’s failure


US PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s failure to close Guantánamo, a prison camp located on the US naval base on the eastern tip of Cuba, has been described as “an epic one”, not just because so many lives have been destroyed by years of unlawful and unfair detentions and torture, “but because Obama hands (his successor) Trump the ability to keep using it”, as Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch put it.

She was not the only one to warn of the terrible consequences of this failure. Before Trump took office, 40 progressive Democratic legislators wrote to Obama insisting: “Mr. Trump must be deprived of the use of Guantánamo Bay.”

Obama made the closing of Guantánamo a central promise of his campaign for president. And he signed an order, on his second full day as president, to close the detention facility. But it still remains open. Of course, on his watch the number of inmates fell from 242 to 41. Very often, he would strike moral postures and say all the right things about how this detention facility was against everything America stood for. This was either to salvage his conscience or reassure his liberal supporters, including the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awarded him a Peace Prize soon after he assumed office.

Meanwhile, the inmates languished in solitary confinement. There were several categories of prisoners, some of them, “the worst of worst”, would never hope to win freedom. All were subject to all forms of torture, including sexual abuses and water boarding, constant beatings and humiliations by prison guards, sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures and shackling in stress positions. Whenever some prisoners went on hunger strike to protest the torture and humiliation, they were force-fed, using very coercive restraint chairs in a way that violates the ethical standards of the World Medical Association and American medical groups.

Hastily constructed in the months following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the facility at one time held 780 people. They were “enemy combatants” but with no legal rights. Most of them were people who found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Many who had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda or terrorism were handed over to the US military by Pakistanis and Afghans to settle scores or make money. Many were held without specific charges being brought; evidence against many others would be inadmissible in a normal civilian court. Only eight of these prisoners have been convicted in Guantanamo’s military commissions in over 15 years. Nine have died including those who committed suicide. Some were released after being found innocent, but only after they had to spend more than a decade in this legal black hole. Some so-called cleared detainees are still there because there was not enough time left before Obama relinquished office to find willing foreign countries who will accept them.

Now their fate as well as that of “the worst of the worst” will pass into the hands of a man who has not made any secret of his opposition to the transfer or release of prisoners from Guantánamo. In fact, Trump urged Obama to cease the transfers. He also waned to “load it (the Gitmo) up with some bad dudes.” He has signed an executive order revoking Obama’s January 2009 order directing that the prison be closed.

History will blame President George W. Bush for, among other things, opening a detention facility which makes a mockery of all values which should underpin a civilized society. History may castigate Trump for using the facility for things even Bush or his Vice President Richard (Dick) Cheney could not have imagined. But history’s severest strictures will be reserved for Obama for letting pass an opportunity to close Gitmo and playing into the hands of people like Cheney who want it kept open until “the end of the war on terror” whenever it may be.