Almost nine years ago to the day, a prison for “war on terror” detainees opened its doors in a remote US base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And despite grand promises, it is unlikely to shut any time soon.
“At this point, it is clear that Guantanamo will not be closed during this presidential term, or maybe even the next one, despite administration claims that it remains committed to the goal,” Columbia University professor, Matthew Waxman, told AFP.
On January 11, 2002, about 20 prisoners arrived at the base, hooded, handcuffed and clothed in distinctive orange prison garb. They were put on display for the world to see, behind the bars of the prison erected on the military base rented from Cuba since the beginning of the 20th century.
Guantanamo quickly became a notorious symbol for the worst of the US excesses in the war on Al-Qaeda launched in the days that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
And rights groups around the world celebrated when new President Barack Obama swore just after his inauguration on January 22, 2009 to shut down the prison, opened by his predecessor George W. Bush.
But two years later some 173 prisoners still languish behind its doors. And Obama’s room for maneuver has been severely curtailed amid a fierce debate over the future of its high-profile foreign inmates.
“The Obama administration has learned that it cannot close Guantanamo without much more cooperation from Congress and from other countries, and that additional support is not forthcoming,” Waxman added.
Just last week, Obama signed into law under protest a huge defense bill which effectively blocks his bid to close the Guantanamo jail.
The 725.9-billion-dollar defense spending plan includes language that makes it virtually impossible to shutter the prison by building a substitute jail or relocating prisoners to the US mainland.
Though he did not explicitly threaten to bypass the restrictions, Obama issued a statement voicing his strong opposition to them, and vowed to try to overturn the measures and ensure they were not expanded in future.
But some Guantanamo opponents believe Obama is hiding behind a convienent excuse.
“The defense authorisation act is not making it impossible to close Guantanamo, the president can use the Department of Justice’s funds to transfer detainees into federal courts in the US for prosecution,” argued Andrea Prasow, from Human Rights Watch.
She added that federal courts — which have already tried their fair share of high-profile terrorism case — were “by far the most reliable place to prosecute people.”
“He has continuously said that he intended to close it. This is something that we believe this administration is committed to. Congress is making it very difficult but not impossible,” she added.
Other activists charge that Obama, still battling the economic downturn and faced with an emboldened Republican party in Congresss after its mid-term electoral gains, is stepping away from the fight.
“He gave up on closing Gitmo a while ago,” criticized Tom Parker, a spokesman from Amnesty International.
“The problem was that closing Gitmo required a great deal of moral courage, required taking a political risk to do the right thing. I think the reality is that we saw that President Obama didn’t have the political courage to follow through on his moral convictions,” he said.
The Republicans’ blocking of the funding needed to shut down the jail and transfer the remaining prisoners onto the mainland was now merely an excuse, he argued.
“The reality is that it is just an excuse and the Obama administration has failed to grapple with this, it failed to take difficult decisions when they had the political path to do so.”
His opinion was shared by Benjamin Wittes, an expert with the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington.
“As political opposition to his Guantanamo plans mobilized, rather, he became paralyzed,” Wittes told AFP.
“And that paralysis is nowhere better typified than in his passivity in the face of increasingly aggressive congressional efforts to micro-manage the disposition of individual Guantanamo cases.
“If the president doesn’t draw the line somewhere or otherwise rearrange the policy landscape he will end up with zero control over a set of policy questions over which the president simply must retain control.”
Obama could have chosen to veto last week’s legislation. But instead he vowed to try to overturn the measures.
“My administration will work with the Congress to seek repeal of these restrictions, will seek to mitigate their effects, and will oppose any attempt to extend or expand them in the future,” he said.
But activists remain unconvinced. “I think that anybody that thinks that a reelected president Obama will bring a fresh impetus to do the right thing that went wrong in the Bush administration in a second is fooling themselves,” said Amnesty’s Parker.
“President Obama came into office on a mandate for change, a promise of change, and what he exactly delivered on this issue is continuacy.”