Obama closer to closing Guantanamo, but hurdles remain
The White House is inching closer to its goal of closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay — home to some of the men subjected to brutal CIA interrogations.
But even though President Barack Obama has seemingly speeded up the process, with six more detainees transferred in the past week, he may not complete the task before leaving the Oval Office.
Four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian — who were never charged or tried for any crime — left the prison at the weekend for Uruguay, after more than 13 years of imprisonment.
The long-anticipated move brings the number of Guantanamo detainees freed this year to 19 — 13 of them transferred out in little more than a month.
“The administration’s policy on Guantanamo is clear: The continued operation of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility poses profound risks to our national security and it must be closed,” National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell told AFP.
“The American people should not be spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on a facility that harms our standing in the world, damages our relationships with key allies, and emboldens violent extremists.”
The prison — opened under then president George W. Bush to house terror suspects after the September 11, 2001 attacks — has long been controversial, both for the incarceration of uncharged and untried suspects and for the brutal interrogations of some detainees.
The extent of the torture inflicted on detainees including self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, allegedly Osama Bin Laden’s right-hand man, was detailed in an explosive US Senate report released Tuesday.
‘Steep hill to climb’
But six years after Obama was elected having made a campaign promise to close the prison, 136 detainees still remain, 67 of whom have been cleared for release by either the Bush or Obama administrations.
“There?s a very steep hill to climb to close the facility in the next couple of years,” said Dixon Osburn, an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, a Washington think tank.
Prison commander Colonel David Heath has said it was “unrealistic” to expect the prison to close before the next presidential election in November 2016.
Several more transfers are planned in the coming weeks of inmates whose releases have been approved, an administration official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
And for another 50 or so inmates, reviews are ongoing to determine if they can be released.
The military’s Periodic Review Board will consider whether those detainees still “pose a significant threat to the security of the United States,” explained a Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Myles Caggins.
Advocacy group Human Rights First has pressed the board to speed up hearings so they can review all outstanding cases before the end of next year and urged Obama to “double down on transfers.”
But with the US Congress opposed to transferring former Guantanamo detainees onto US soil, third-party countries will need to be found for many of the remaining inmates.
“We are reaching out to many countries from across the globe and are very appreciative of the support we are receiving,” said Ian Moss, spokesman for State Department special envoy Cliff Sloan, who has been tapped to lead efforts to close the prison.
The biggest transfer challenge? The Yemeni prisoners.
“Of the 67 cleared detainees, 54 are Yemenis,” said lawyer David Remes, who represents several of them.
“The U.S. is unlikely to send them home to Yemen because the country is disintegrating and violence is everywhere. But can Obama find enough other countries to take all of the cleared Yemenis?”
Remes said Obama will not be able to close Guantanamo before he leaves office unless Congress authorizes detainee transfers to the United States — something he deems “unlikely.”
And even if all cleared inmates get repatriated or transferred elsewhere, there would still remain some 15 “high-value” detainees.
These inmates, who include the five men accused in the 9/11 attacks, face trial at a special military tribunal because they are considered too dangerous to be tried or incarcerated in the United States.
But in a perhaps promising sign, the Uruguay transfer came just as a new Pentagon chief was tapped to replace Chuck Hagel, who was suspected of dragging his heels over the issue.
Human Rights First immediately urged Ashton Carter, who will succeed Hagel if confirmed by the Senate, to make “closing Guantanamo … one of the Pentagon?s top priorities for the next two years.”