Law and Politics: Obama’s new Gitmo problem


While the Guantánamo Bay prison camp has faded as a political issue, the conditions there have been dramatically deteriorating. For several months, prisoners have been mounting intense protests, in response to grievances with guards and frustration with their legal status. They have conducted hunger strikes, battled with guards, and thwarted the camp’s surveillance system.

On Saturday, U.S. officials decided the prisoners had gone too far. Officials raided the camp, emptying prison cells, and forcing some detainees into isolation.

The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg, who has covered Guantánamo for over a decade, reports that while the U.S. has sought to provide more humanitarian conditions for detainees, the recent tensions reflect frustration with the endless legal limbo in the camp:

By the time President Barack Obama took office, the prison camps had established communal confinement in a prison called Camp 6 that was more in the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, with … TV, books and, for well-behaved captives, wristwatches…But [there have been] mounting tensions at the camp… following a particularly aggressive cell search held Feb. 6.

…Lawyers for the captives said a wide-ranging hunger strike was underway, and some described seeing long-held, once plump prisoners wasting away before their eyes. The strike, they said, was sparked by what the captives considered abusive searches of their Qurans … fueled by years of frustration at their status of legal limbo.

Rosenberg reports that there are 43 prisoners on hunger strike. The U.S. is now force-feeding 13 of them, in order to keep them alive. The guards have also lost a measure of “control over life” in the prison, Rosenberg reports: ”The captives could be seen systematically disobeying communal camp rules. They covered surveillance cameras in individual cells with cereal boxes. They refused to admit food carts to the cellblocks.”

Obama officials emphasize that they had advance notice about recent changes at the prison, such as moving detainees into individual cells, and they are monitoring developments closely. That may be fine for crisis management, but there is very little talk about actually addressing the core problems at Guantánamo Bay.

About 166 prisoners remain in the camp today. That reflects progress–over 700 men have been imprisoned there–but also stalemate. Twelve years after the Afghanistan war began, these remaining prisoners are people who have been cut off from their entire world, mostly without any trial to address the charges against them, let alone their guilt or innocence. And that’s not all.

It is well known that many detainees are not high-ranking terrorists. As early as 2003, Donald Rumsfeld privately objected to how many “low-level enemy combatants” wound up in the prison. According to a comprehensive 2006 analysis of Defense Department data, most detainees were not affiliated with terrorist groups. (The report was from Seton Hall University, applying a terrorist definition was based on the U.S. government’s terrorist list.)

A high error rate, of course, does not mean the prison should just be emptied.

Nor could it, since Congress severely restricted the Obama administration’s options for transferring detainees. As one former National Security Council official told me last year, “Congress has put up as many roadblocks as possible to keep the Guantanamo Bay prison open.”

So the prison stays open, while the door to fair trials is pretty much closed.  A reassessment of Guantánamo justice is long overdue.


Law and Politics: Obama's new Gitmo problem