For months now, men have been starving themselves in Guantanamo Bay to get the attention of the American people. And for weeks these men, prisoners of the War on Terror, many of whom have been cleared for release, have had the attention of the White House, which is filled with officials, including the President, who sympathize with the prisoners’ plight.
“It’s not sustainable,” President Obama said Tuesday, breaking his silence about the protest against his own government. “I mean, the notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity.”
Obama repeated a position he has long held: The detention facility needs to be closed, with the prisoners either transferred to third countries if they do not present a threat or to the United States for adjudication. “This is a lingering, you know, problem that is not going to get better,” he said. “It’s going to get worse. It’s going to fester.”
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The detention center at Guantanamo Bay now operates with the dizzying logic of a Franz Kafka novel. By administration policy, no new prisoners arrive, 166 remain. Because of political disputes in Washington, no prisoners have been allowed to leave recently, even though 86 have been cleared for release. Congress has blocked their transfer to the United States, for trial or incarceration, and conditioned their release to third countries on a certification from the Secretary of Defense about the security of those transfers, which has not been forthcoming. In addition, the administration has a voluntary hold on any transfers to Yemen, the likely destination for more than 50 of the detainees destined for release.
In the meantime, Obama and the military have approved the force feeding of the prisoners who are refusing to eat, raising the objections of the American Medical Association, which has long argued that the force feeding of mentally competent prisoners is unethical. As of Tuesday, 100 are officially participating in the hunger strike, with 21 now being force-fed a nutritional supplement through tubes inserted in their noses, according to the New York Times. “I don’t want these individuals to die,” Obama said.
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So what will happen next? Even before the press conference Tuesday, the National Security staff had begun considering options for changing the legal limbo status of Guantanamo. While the Supreme Court struck in 2008 that the prisoners have habeas corpus protection, the courts have increasingly rejected habeas petitions. Some of the inmates have now been held without trial for 11 years. “We’re going to examine every option that we have administratively to try to deal with this issue, but ultimately we’re also going to need some help from Congress,” Obama said.
In response to Obama’s announcement, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Howard “Buck” McKeon said Obama needed to develop a comprehensive detainee policy before the base could be closed. “The president faces bipartisan opposition to closing Guantanamo Bay’s detention center because he has offered no alternative plan regarding the detainees there, nor a plan for future terrorist captures,” he said. Obama’s plan in 2009, which asked for $80 million to transfer the detainees to U.S. prisons, was rejected by the Senate 90 to 6. Last November the Senate voted 54 to 41 to prohibit the Department of Defense from transferring the detainees.
But the political calculus could begin to shift in the coming months, on the back of an unlikely alignment of voices concerning a most unusual detention facility. The President of the United States is siding with the prisoners starving themselves to protest his government.
With reporting by Alex Rogers