New York (MintPress) – Exactly 11 years after the opening of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and four years after newly-installed President Barack Obama signed an order to suspend the work of the military commission, the White House has now shut down the office that was working on closing GITMO.
The State Department reassigned Daniel Fried — the special diplomatic envoy whose job it was to repatriate and resettle the detainees — to the position of coordinator for sanctions policy. His responsibilities will be assumed by the office of the department’s legal adviser.
“It’s too soon to draw conclusions from this development, but it cannot be used as an excuse for the Obama administration to continue to keep Guantanamo open and to continue to deny human rights there,” Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International’s U.S. Security and Human Rights Campaign, tells Mint Press News.
The announcement came as the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his four alleged accomplices — his nephew, Ali Abdulaziz Ali, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin ‘Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al-Hawsawi — returned to the high-security courtroom at Guantanamo for the resumption of pretrial hearings, the first since October 2012.
“Unfortunately, we are still at the very early stages of this case. We’re litigating very key issues about just how the lawyers are going to communicate with their clients,” said Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch, one of several groups that has long contested the establishment of military tribunals for prosecuting detainees held at Gitmo.
“The sad truth is that if this case had been tried in federal court, it would be over and done with by now,” Pitter adds.
Instead, the hearings have been bogged down in procedural issues, including the unauthorized use of official censors. On Thursday, the military judge handling the trial, Army Colonel James Pohl, ordered the government to dismantle a monitoring system that allowed the public broadcast of the hearings to be halted.
Pohl said this week would be “the last time” that any third party “will be able to unilaterally decide” when the court closes.
An anonymous outside censor, reportedly the CIA, cut off the feed on Monday when a lawyer for Khalid Sheikh Muhammad began discussing his motion to make the government preserve the secret black sites overseas where his client was tortured by the CIA in order to protect any evidence.
Much to the chagrin of human rights advocates, proceedings at Guantanamo are streamed on a 40-second delay to a room with a view of the courtroom, to Gitmo’s media center and to additional reporters at Fort Meade, Md.
Return to Bush doctrine
The military commissions were first set up during the administration of President George W. Bush.
In November 2001, he announced that certain non-citizens, “those whom the president deems to be or to have been members of al-Qaida or to have engaged in, aided or abetted, or conspired to commit acts of international terrorism that have caused, threaten to cause or have as their aim to cause, injury to or adverse effects on the U.S. or its citizens,” would be subject to detention and trial by military authorities.
Five years later, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, allowing the commander in chief to designate certain people as “unlawful enemy combatants,” making them subject to military commissions, where they have fewer civil rights than in regular trials.
During the 2008 presidential campaigns, then-candidate Obama told a crowd of supporters in Washington, D.C., “As president, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act and adhere to the Geneva Conventions.”
And just days after being sworn into office, Obama ordered a review of the more than 200 cases at Guantanamo to determine who should face criminal prosecution as part of a larger effort to permanently close the facility by January 2010.
But on May 15, 2009, Obama changed course and announced that his administration would resurrect the military commissions. In a three-paragraph statement released after the announcement was made, he said, ”Military commissions have a long tradition in the United States. They are appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered.”
According to an investigation by Truthout.org, his about-face followed months of pressure from Defense Department and National Security officials.
“It was a political calculation,” maintains Johnson. “Instead of treating it as a human rights issue, he treated it as a political issue. He decided we will close it when it is politically expedient, and that’s not acceptable.”
Neither, say rights groups, is indefinite detention without being charged.
In December 2009, with Guantanamo still open, Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, saying in his speech, “I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength.”
“That is why I prohibited torture,” he added. “That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed.”
But on Jan. 7, 2011, Obama signed a new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which placed restrictions on the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. or other foreign countries, impeding the facility’s closure.
Although he issued a statement that disapproved of the provision, he argued that it was part of a bigger military bill that was too important not to sign.
Obama has, on an annual basis, continued to sign a new NDAA. The 2013 bill bans use of appropriated funds to transfer detainees to the mainland U.S. for any reason and sets conditions of sending detainees to another country.
“Each and every detainee should be tried in a civilian court or released to a country that will respect their human rights,” says Amnesty’s Johnson. “The U.S. would not accept this from any other country and it should not do so at home,”
Ongoing lobbying efforts
Despite the administration’s apparent backtracking on Gitmo due to political pressures, a broad coalition of human rights groups and other like-minded organizations staged a rally in Washington, D.C. earlier this month, calling on Obama to keep his early promise of shuttering Guantanamo.
The coalition demanded that the government either release the men still detained there or charge them and give them a fair trial.
“The continued use of the prison at Guantanamo Bay challenges our nation’s commitment to the rule of law and worsens our international reputation,” said Corey Saylor, national legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in a statement.
“For the past four years, Congress has repeatedly maneuvered to prevent the president from closing this illegal prison, prosecuting its detainees or transferring them. The Council … urges the president to close the Guantanamo prison once and for all as he promised to do in his first year in office.”
“The 11th anniversary of the U.S. prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay serves as a grave reminder of the existence of U.S. prison facilities at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, that are still beyond the reach of the law,” stated Tina M. Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network.
“No prison beyond the law is worth the cost to innocent lives, to taxpayers, to our national security or to our standing in the world.”
According to Johnson of Amnesty International, roughly half of the 166 detainees still being held at Gitmo have been cleared for transfer. “That is fundamentally flawed,” he said. “Every human being has rights. Nobody is above or below the law.”