Guantanamo: the beginning of the end?

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

The closing of a prison that Amnesty International labeled “an American gulag”, and dictators around the world have used to ridicule the U.S.’ moral standing, can finally become a reality if the Congress and the White house decide to play along. President Barack Obama is making a new push to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility through transfer of some detainees to Yemen, referral to civilian courts and military commissions as well as moving them to highly secure prisons on U.S. territory.

Efforts to close the camp by Obama in 2009 were met by objections from members of the U.S. congress who voiced concerns over the transfer of prisoners to their country of origin, or referring them to civilian courts that might in turn reject the cases on the grounds that the evidence might have been obtained through torture

Joyce Karam

Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, reminded the American public last week in a speech at the National Defense University, that the original premise for opening Guantanamo prison camp (Gitmo) has been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. highest court in 2008. The 11 year old prison located on foreign territory in Cuba was established by the George W. Bush administration to allow holding detainees indefinitely and without granting them the right of habeas corpus or civilian courts.

Yemen and Military Commissions

Efforts to close the camp by Obama in 2009 were met by objections from members of the U.S. congress who voiced concerns over the transfer of prisoners to their country of origin, or referring them to civilian courts that might in turn reject the cases on the grounds that the evidence might have been obtained through torture. The option to move some of the high value detainees to secure prisons inside the U.S. was also blocked by the Congress for political reasons, mainly due to the fear among their constituents of holding high value targets such as Khaled Sheikh Mohammed inside their states prisons.

Obama has higher odds at succeeding this time, due to changing circumstances inside the camp itself and among Americans. In his speech, the U.S. President announced lifting the 2010 moratorium on transferring detainees to Yemen, a move that offers a good start towards closing Gitmo. It can grant the transfer of 56 Yemeni detainees (out of 86 who are cleared for return) to their home country. Such move would have carried high political risk few years ago, but the improved situation in Yemen under President Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and his government’s increased efforts and coordination with Washington in fighting Al-Qaeda prompted the administration to lift the moratorium. The transfer would require the U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to assure congress in a written waiver that the transfer is in the U.S. interest and that the risk of those detainees getting re-recruited by Al-Qaeda is diminished. Such a waiver was less likely during the tenure or former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh because of Al-Qaeda gains in the country, and more than one plot by Al-Qaeda inside Yemen to attack the U.S.

Along with the Yemeni route, Obama announced that the Department of Defense has been tasked to “designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions.” This is important for two reasons, it gives the administration a legal exit around not referring high level detainees-who have been tortured- to Federal courts, and risking that the evidence would be dismissed. It also provides some members of Congress who have objected to referring the detainees to civilian courts, in part to appear hawkish in fighting terrorism, with another platform. So far, there are 15 high value detainees in Guantanamo, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has confirmed in 2008 that three of them have been water-boarded. Those detainees are Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM). Also, six of the high value detainees (including KSM) have been charged with war crimes under Guantanamo military commissions, overseen by the Defense department.

Federal courts on the other hand and in case the evidence is admissible, represent another alternative for the Obama administration in attempting to close the prison. It has proven successful in the cases of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani (formerly held at Gitmo) and Zacarias Moussaoui, both serving life sentence in “ADX Supermax” prisons in Colorado and Florida respectively. The U.S. public is also more accepting today of trying suspected terrorists in Federal courts. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Richard Reid, Faisal Shahzad, and the Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are all terrorist suspects who have been tried in U.S. courts. Obama reminded the skeptics that “no one has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons in the United States.”

Conditions Inside Camp

The hunger strike at Guantanamo has entered its 113th day and it has so far 102 detainees with no indication that this number is slipping anytime soon. The strike and the fact that some of detainees are being force-fed, it has given more urgency and traction behind the debate for closing the Gitmo. Several suicide attempts have been reported at the prison, last one in September 2012, and U.S. officials want to avoid at any cost mass deaths cases due to the hunger strike.

The cost of maintaining Guantanamo is another factor that validates the President argument. It can sway some members of Congress whose priority is balancing the U.S. budget, into seeking less costly alternatives. The Defense Department estimates the annual cost of Gitmo at $150 million a year, almost a million dollar for each detainee. The “Supermax” prisons in comparison cost $75,000 per cell annually. Those numbers will come into play as Obama meets members of Congress to discuss the proposal. Ranking Republican Senator John McCain has spoken forcefully about the need to close Guantanamo, while the Wall Street Journal reported that many republican members of Congress see Gitmo as an “unsustainable situation in the long run.”

Closing Gitmo will not happen overnight and will require Obama and his political opponents to play their part. Yet, there is an overriding U.S. interest in closing what has been a dark chapter in the story of “America the shining city upon a hill.”

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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