Obama pledges to close Guantanamo

Issue 

On November 16, in his first interview since his election victory, US president-elect Barack Obama told the CBS program 60 Minutes that his administration would close the notorious US concentration camp on the illegally occupied Cuban territory of Guantanamo Bay, and end the use of torture.

"I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that", he said. "I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm going to make sure that we don't torture.

"Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world."

That the Guantanamo camp has become costly to the US in terms of "moral stature" is to the credit of civil liberties activists inside the US and globally.

Rejection of the pro-war and anti-civil liberties policies of US President George Bush's administration were an important part of Obama's victory in the November 4 poll.

In Australia, thousands of people demonstrated for Guantanamo to be closed, Australian detainees to be returned and against the then-Howard government's collaboration with US human rights abuses.

The closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison would be an important victory for civil liberties and a necessary step towards repudiating Bush's legacy. However, questions remain over the fate of the 255 remaining detainees.

There are suggestions they could be transferred to the US mainland and face a legal process not much fairer than the discredited Guantanamo tribunals, or else deported to their countries of origin where they could also face persecution.

Tip of the iceberg

Furthermore, Guantanamo is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Obama has said nothing of the network of CIA-run secret prisons and "rendition" destinations in US-client regimes that hold thousands of people. The extent of this global gulag network has never been revealed.

An editorial in the November 17 San Francisco Chronicle echoed the calls of human rights groups for an investigation into, and possible prosecution of, Bush administration officials responsible for human rights abuses and the subversion of US law associated with Guantanamo.

Of the 774 who were incarcerated at Guantanamo, the majority were captured by US-led occupation forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, or in neighbouring Pakistan.

Large numbers of Afghans and foreigners fell victim to the US policy of paying bounties. Thousands of leaflets were distributed throughout Afghanistan offering between $5000 and $5 million for "terrorists" handed over.

Afghanistan is a desperately poor country where local animosities have been fuelled by decades of war, creating good incentives for selling personal enemies to the occupying forces — who did not investigate the allegations against those handed to them.

In Pakistan, the corrupt military dictatorship spotted a potential revenue-raising opportunity. Then-president Pervez Musharraf boasted in his 2006 autobiography, "We have earned bounty payments totaling millions of dollars".

Those taken in Afghanistan were held at the Bagram Air Force Base before being taken to Guantanamo.

Despite the notoriety of the torture carried out at Guantanamo — including prolonged isolation, waterboarding (simulated drowning) and sexual assault — detainees and ex-detainees report the abuses perpetrated at Bagram were even worse.

The US-led occupation forces in Afghanistan continue to hold people in Bagram without trial, as their counterparts in Iraq do at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

Rendition

Other Guantanamo detainees suffered the process of "rendition" — being taken on secret CIA flights either to secret CIA-run prisons or to countries where pro-US regimes routinely carry out torture, such as Egypt, Jordan or Uzbekistan.

The barbarity of this outsourced torture ranged from rape by dogs to boiling alive.

Not all victims of "rendition" ended up in Guantanamo. Some died under torture, while others remain to this day in secret prisons.

The sites of some of these prisons have been identified in Eastern Europe. Another is believed to be at Diego Garcia, a US military base, which like Guantanamo is on territory illegally excised from another nation — in this case Mauritius.

Diego Garcia was removed from Mauritius by the former colonial power, Britain, and leased to the US. On October 22, the British House of Lords overturned previous judicial rulings that would have allowed Diego Garcia's evicted inhabitants to return to their homeland.

Australian Mamdouh Habib was arrested and tortured in Pakistan in 2001, before undergoing rendition to Egypt where he suffered even worse torture. He was then taken to Guantanamo.

In January 2005, he was released without charge.

According to Habib, Australian Federal Police and ASIO personnel were involved in his interrogation and abuse in all three locations.

The continual police harassment, and slander by the media and politicians, that he has suffered appears to be due to his refusal to remain silent on Australia's complicity in his illegal detention and torture.

In 2007, Australian David Hicks pleaded guilty to vaguely worded charges in a US show trial in exchange for being transferred to prison in Australia for nine months.

The alternative to his guilty plea was indefinite imprisonment in Guantanamo.

On November 18, Hicks spoke publically for the first time since his release in a video appeal to members of the social justice group GetUp! as part of a campaign to end the restrictive "control order" he has been subjected to since his release from prison.

On November 20, Australian authorities announced they would not renew his control order when it expires on December 21.

Detainees' fate

One of the issues facing the US with the closure of Guantanamo is the repatriating 90 Yemeni detainees, as the Yemeni government refuses to impose a similar "control order" regime.

Reports have suggested that some of these will be transferred to the US for trial, although whether these trials will be in regular courts or some version of Bush's military commissions is not clear.

Another issue concerns stateless detainees, such as Palestinians, who have no homeland to return to.

While the US has not been concerned that some released Guantanamo detainees have been arrested and tortured on their return (for example, in Tunisia), it would be politically costly for Obama to hand over to China any of the 22 Uighur refugees remaining in Guantanamo, where they could expect similar treatment.

The Uighur homeland, East Turkestan, has, like neighbouring Tibet, been occupied by China since the 1950s, and Uighurs have suffered political and religious persecution, economic marginalisation and dispossession.

The US is, however, unwilling to give asylum to people it has branded terrorists. As a result, a group of six Uighurs have resettled in Albania after their release from Guantanamo, although Albania has stated that it is unwilling to take any more.

Obama is right to seek Guantanamo's closure. However, to have any genuine claim to "moral stature", his administration needs to close Abu Ghraib, Bagram and all secret prisons.

Also required is compensation for detainees and resettlement for those that fear persecution in their homelands, as well as the prosecution of US military and political figures responsible for human rights abuses.

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