On 10th anniversary, Guantanamo Bay’s future is unclear

Just over a year ago, Saiid Farhi, an Algerian, was flown home from the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after a federal court ordered his release.

No one has left since.

The string of victories that Guantanamo detainees enjoyed in U.S. District Court has been reversed by the federal appeals court in Washington. The Obama administration has insisted that restrictions imposed by Congress are so onerous, it cannot repatriate or resettle the detainees it has cleared for transfer. And as the facility approaches its 10th anniversary on Wednesday, human rights groups have bemoaned its seeming permanency and the Obama administration’s failure to close it.

To mark the anniversary, Guantanamo detainees on Tuesday began three days of protests, according to an attorney for a handful of the men. Some refused to return to their cells for the four-hour nightly lockdown and slept in the recreation areas. Others said they would refuse food for the duration of the protest.

“These peaceful protests are the most eloquent response to the U.S. government’s refusal to shutter the prison and its claims that Guantanamo is a normal, state-of-the-art facility,” said Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York and counsel to some of the detainees.

Last month, it was reported that the administration had seriously considered transferring five Afghan detainees as part of a package of mutual confidence-building with the Taliban. Initially, it was proposed that the five would be held under house arrest in Qatar.

But for some activists, the prospect of renewed movement on emptying the detention center was clouded by the inclusion of Mohammad Fazl, a former Taliban deputy defense minister, on the list of those who could take their first steps toward freedom in a villa in Doha.

Almost immediately after Fazl’s capture, in late 2001, Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. government to ensure that the former Taliban commander be brought before a tribunal to answer allegations that he had a role in war crimes committed by Taliban forces in central Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001.

U.N. and Human Rights Watch investigators found that at least 170 members of a Shiite Muslim ethnic group, the Hazara, were summarily executed by the Taliban in January 2001. Numerous witnesses testified that Fazl visited the district where the massacre occurred, during the four days when the men were shot in public by firing squads, according to Human Rights Watch. The commander who oversaw the killing and served directly under Fazl was also held at Guantanamo but was released in 2003, before the United States knew who he was.

Human Rights Watch also said that the records of at least two of the other four Afghans who could be transferred to Qatar should be investigated for possible prosecution.

“It’s sad, tragic and ironic that someone who could have been prosecuted may be let go, but we’re not saying that Guantanamo is the proper place to hold war criminals,” said John Sifton, advocacy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch. “What we are saying is that they should be investigated and, in Fazl’s case especially, tried for war crimes.”

Of the 171 detainees remaining at Guantanamo, 59 have been cleared for transfer. The Obama administration has determined that an additional 30 Yemenis could be repatriated if conditions improve in their homeland. The remainder would be prosecuted or held indefinitely, the administration has said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that President Obama remains committed to closing the facility at Guantanamo.

“We all are aware of the obstacles to getting that done as quickly as the president wanted to get it done, what they were and the fact that they continued to persist,” Carney said. “But the president’s commitment hasn’t changed at all.”

A number of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, are planning a demonstration outside the White House on Wednesday, followed by a march to the Supreme Court.

Shaker Aamer, a Saudi citizen who was formerly a British resident, said he and other detainees are “very grateful for this expression of solidarity by Americans with the prisoners at Guantanamo and their families,” according to Kassem, his attorney. Aamer is held in Camp 5, a lockdown facility for detainees who are not “compliant” with the military’s detention rules.

Amnesty International and other groups are are also organizing events across Europe, including the construction of a Guantanamo-like cell in Berlin, a protest flash mob in Paris and the delivery of a giant replica of a detainee to the U.S. Embassy in Madrid.

“Guantanamo has infected everything it has touched,” said Tom Parker, Amnesty International’s USA policy director for counterterrorism and human rights. “We mark this dismal anniversary knowing with a heavy heart that despite President Obama’s election promise to close the facility, it will begin its 10th year of operation more deeply entrenched in U.S. life than ever.”

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