Death At Guantánamo Hovers Over Obama’s Middle East Visit

4.6.09

Barack Obama delivering his speech in Cairo, June 4, 2009In his speech in Egypt on Thursday, in which he promised “A New Beginning,” Barack Obama did not specifically mention the death of a prisoner at Guantánamo on Monday — and the extent to which the prison’s existence has soured relations between the United States and the Muslim world — except to repeat his most concise promise to move on from the lawlessness of the Bush years: “I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantánamo Bay closed by early next year.”

And yet, Guantánamo — and recent events at the prison — hovered unnervingly over the President’s visit to the Middle East. A death at Guantánamo is always felt keenly in the Muslim world, and is also uncomfortable for the Obama administration, which, since reviewing conditions at the prison in January, claims that it is running a “humane” facility.

Behind the rhetoric, however, the truth is still bleak. Guantánamo may look, more than ever, like a regular US prison, with half of the remaining 239 prisoners now sharing communal facilities, and others, in two maximum security blocks, allowed limited opportunities to socialize, but the prisoners held there have, for the most part, been imprisoned without charge or trial for over seven years, unlike even the most hardened convicted criminals on the US mainland.

In addition, the widespread euphoria that greeted Obama’s election victory, and the hope that it would result in the prison’s swift closure, has turned to frustration, as only two prisoners (Binyam Mohamed and Lakhdar Boumediene) have been released in the last four months. Shane Kadidal, a lawyer with New York’s Center for Constitutional Rights, explained that the prisoners were now saying, “At least Bush sent some people home,” and further frustration has greeted news that Obama is considering proposing new legislation authorizing “preventive detention” for up to a hundred of the remaining prisoners, effectively legitimising the Bush administration’s detention policies.

As a result, many of the prisoners, like Muhammad Salih, the Yemeni prisoner who died on Monday, apparently by committing suicide, have resorted to hunger strikes as the only means of protesting against their arbitrary and seemingly endless imprisonment. For these men, strapped into a restraint chair twice a day, and force-fed against their will via a tube that is thrust up their noses and into their stomachs, the prison is anything but “humane.”

One of the restraint chairs used for force-feeding prisoners in Guantanamo
One of the restraint chairs used to force-feed prisoners in Guantánamo. Photo discovered by Geo Swan for Wikipedia.

Muhammad Salih was the fifth prisoner to commit suicide at Guantánamo, but the first under Obama’s watch. In keeping with the President’s desire to portray the prison in the best possible light, it is unlikely that anyone in the administration will make a comment to compare with a statement made by Rear Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of Guantánamo at the time of the first three deaths in June 2006, who said, “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us.” However, it is also unlikely that the government will come clean about Muhammad Salih’s status, and concede that there is no evidence that he even remotely resembled one of the fabled “terror suspects” whom the prison was ostensibly established to hold.

Salih himself admitted that he had traveled to Afghanistan many months before the 9/11 attacks, to fight as a foot soldier for the Taliban against the Muslims of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan’s long-running civil war. When the US military reviewed his case at Guantánamo in 2004, he acknowledged being a member of the Taliban, but made a point of adding, “Yes, but that doesn’t mean I supported Osama bin Laden.”

With no information to indicate that Muhammad Salih was connected to al-Qaeda’s terrorist activities, his death should serve as another important reminder that the Bush administration’s policy of subjecting prisoners to arbitrary detention as “enemy combatants” has been a wretched failure. Had the former regime obeyed domestic and international laws, it would have held those regarded as terrorists as criminal suspects, to be prosecuted in federal courts, and, after adequate screening (which never took place) would have held other combatants as prisoners of war, according to the Geneva Conventions.

If this had happened, we would now be discussing whether it was feasible to imprison someone until the end of hostilities in a “war” whose supporters regard it as a struggle that might last for generations, and the answer, of course, would be no. Muhammad Salih, a foot soldier in another war, which preceded the 9/11 attacks, and had nothing to do with international terrorism, had been imprisoned for longer than the duration of the Second World War when his life ended in Guantánamo, even though the circumstances in which he was captured — during the overthrow of the Taliban and the establishment of a new Afghan government — came to an end no later than 3 November 2004, when Hamid Karzai was elected as President.

Although the response to Muhammad Salih’s death has been muted in the West, and did not surface publicly in the Middle East during President Obama’s visit, the ripples from the latest death in Guantánamo — and, no doubt, rumors that Salih was killed, or, perhaps more convincingly, that he died as a result of years of brutal force-feeding — surely made themselves felt behind the scenes. If Obama truly wishes to distance himself from the lawless initiatives of his predecessor, he needs to think deeply about an appropriate response, and will, I hope, reflect on the distinction between terror suspects and foot soldiers, rethink what “preventive detention” really means, and, above all, move swiftly to release more prisoners before there are any other deaths at Guantánamo.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post, AlterNet, CounterPunch and Antiwar.com.

12 Responses

  1. Barack Obama: A New Beginning (Cairo University 06.04.09) « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] Death At Guantánamo Hovers Over Obama’s Middle East Visit | Andy Worthington [...]

  2. Chomsky on Obama Speech + The 3rd Rail – Obama’s game-changing speech in Egypt « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] Death At Guantánamo Hovers Over Obama’s Middle East Visit | Andy Worthington [...]

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t often cross-post comments from other sites, but was impressed by this comment from TruthOverPropaganda when this article was published on the Huffington Post:

    “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    I admire your tireless efforts in calling for the just treatment of these detainees. Your blog posts, even though Huff Post rarely posts them on the Home page, give a voice to those whose voices can”t be heard, and for this I want to say THANK YOU. These are human beings and they are being treated like dogs, even dogs deserve better treatment than this. I believe Obama is worse than Bush in some ways, he”s trying to make the illegal things that Bush did now legal, like preventively detaining people for as long as he wants.

  4. Connie L. Nash says...

    Thanks for all your cross-posts, Andy. Any and all are welcome and more…

  5. Frances Madeson says...

    I think it’s unfair to suggest that his one statement about closing Guantanamo is the only one affecting the fate of the prisoners. In the very act of the speech he’s transforming the context in which decisions about the fate of the prisoners can be made. It will be salutary, I’m confident.

  6. the talking dog says...

    I believe Obama is worse than Bush in some ways, he”s trying to make the illegal things that Bush did now legal, like preventively detaining people for as long as he wants.

    Funny, that.

    To be sure, Bush always asserted that what he did was legal (and had memos written by Addington and signed by Yoo telling him so). But Obama, the supposed “conciliatory figure,” proposing that “we will honor the rule of law” and that the President doesn’t have “unitary executive” dictatorial powers, asserts that such powers can be conferred by an act of Congress. I understand the imperatives of political expediency, in particular in the defense/security area where Obama is unquestionably out of his depth, and he is likely facing a rogue military and intel apparatus (perhaps he should have thought about replacing his predecessor’s SecDef… just saying.) Still and all, those of us who supported him did so for CHANGE in this one area most of all. And we’re getting anything but.

    Instead, what we’re getting is so much more handsome, but no less totalitarian.

  7. Pepe Escobar: Peace be upon Barack « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] Death At Guantánamo Hovers Over Obama’s Middle East Visit | Andy Worthington [...]

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    And this (also from the Huffington Post), from Salpha, who made a great point about how Cheney, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Fox News and others have manipulated US opinion about closing Guantanamo in just a few short months, using their usual ungrounded fearmongering:

    Thanks Mr. Worthington for your brave and long quest into informing us about the great injustice perpetrated in Guantanamo. If only the good people of the US would understand how this is such a stain that will not go away until it is resolve. Since 9/11 the US have been manipulated to fear and panic by the media and some unscrupulous politicians.

    In January a poll showed that a big majority of Americans wanted Guantanamo closed. It took the Cheney tour, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Fox News and all the politicians that use fear to gain political point to twist the truth to reverse the opinion of the US citizens. Now a recent poll shows two third of the US does not want Guantanamo closed. How can this happen in such a short while? It must be very depressing for all the people who are fighting for the US to return to the democracy it claimed to be and the rule of law and respect the treaty they signed.

    Mr. Worthington you are a hero for democracy, I wish you would have a bigger platform.

  9. the talking dog says...

    Mr. Worthington you are a hero for democracy, I wish you would have a bigger platform.

    Word up.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks,TD.
    Well, that could be today’s T-shirt slogan, under a pic of the big O:
    “More handsome, but no less totalitarian”
    At the moment, there’s still a question mark at the end of that phrase, but we’re watching closely …

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    I also received the following message:

    Dear Andy,

    I often read your articles on CounterPunch and find them always informative.

    Perhaps, though, you might reconsider your statement that the “policy of subjecting prisoners to arbitrary detention as ‘enemy combatants’ has been a wretched failure”.

    I believe that it HAS been successful a part of a strategy of terrorizing both US opponents overseas and the American public. Clearly, Cheney wanted to create a worldwide climate of fear, and to show that the US military can do whatever it wants, where ever and whenever it wants, regardless of US or international law.

    Even worse, Obama and Gates have continued this policy, regardless of their statements to the contrary.

    best regards,
    Bob M.
    Berkeley, Calif.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    Hi Bob,
    I stand corrected, as that sentence should have read that the “policy of subjecting prisoners to arbitrary detention as ‘enemy combatants’ has been a wretched failure in terms of adherence to the laws on which the Untied States was founded.”

    But you’re absolutely right about its intended effect, and how the new boys’ broom is not sufficiently sturdy …

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