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Time to End the Despair at Guantánamo

a prisoner is seen through a fence
a prisoner is seen through a fence
Zachary Katznelson,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU National Security Project
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April 29, 2013

The hunger strike in Guantánamo continues to grow, even by the U.S. military’s questionable count. The military states that 100 of the 166 prisoners there are on strike, 21 are being force-fed, and five have been hospitalized. Lawyers for the prisoners put the number of hunger strikers at over 130. So many prisoners are in need of medical care that the military has now brought some 40 additional Navy “corpsmen, nurses, and other specialists” to add to the 100 already on duty.

The prime motivator for the strike, as reported in a front-page story in The New York Times last week, is the prisoners’ growing despair that they will never go home. General John F. Kelly, who as head of U.S. Southern Command ultimately oversees the prison, recently told Congress that the prisoners “had great optimism that Guantánamo would be closed. They were devastated apparently … when the president backed off — at least their perception — of closing the facility.” The Director-General of the Red Cross tweeted this weekend that the “level of desperation amongst detainees is unprecedented.”

The ACLU and a coalition of leading NGOs have called upon President Obama to 1) immediately direct Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to take the steps necessary to effect transfers from Guantánamo, and 2) to assign a senior official to lead the effort to close the prison. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has now made a similar call. The need for Obama administration action becomes ever more urgent; so far this year, there have only been steps backward.

First, in January, President Obama signed into law renewed restrictions on transfers from Guantánamo, reneging on a veto threat for the second year in a row. A few weeks later, the administration shut down the State Department office working to resettle Guantánamo prisoners. Responsibility was shifted to the State Department’s Office of the Legal Advisor. However, the State Department’s spokesman last week stated that the staff now assigned to the portfolio is taking no substantive action to resettle prisoners, because the administration has yet to authorize any actual transfers. The staff primarily spend their time answering letters.

In last week’s New York Times story, Buck McKeon, Republican chair of the House Armed Services Committee summed up the situation: “The administration hasn’t taken any steps toward meeting the requirements of having anybody released.” Indeed, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lietzau stated in the same article that “even if the legislative restrictions were removed, I don’t believe the numbers would change radically.”

It is past time for the Obama White House to take charge and order immediate action that will help end the desperation of the men imprisoned in Guantánamo for more than 11 years without being charged or tried, men who are losing hope of ever being transferred out.

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