Nothing to Celebrate Four Months After Obama’s Promise to Resume Releasing Cleared Prisoners from Guantánamo

25.9.13

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email. Please also visit, like, share and tweet the GTMO Clock website, which we established in July to monitor how long it has been since President Obama promised to resume releasing cleared prisoners from Guantánamo, and how many of those men have been released.

Four months ago, on May 23, President Obama delivered a major speech on national security issues, in which he promised to resume releasing cleared prisoners from Guantánamo. At the time, of the remaining 166 prisoners, 86 had been cleared for release in January 2010 by an inter-agency task force of officials from the major government departments and the intelligence agencies, which the president had established shortly after taking office in January 2009.

These men were still held for a variety of reasons. One reason was the onerous restrictions imposed by Congress, where lawmakers sought to prevent the release of prisoners under any circumstances, insisting that the defense secretary would have to certify that any prisoner he sought to release would be unable to engage in terrorism in the future. Another reason was a ban on releasing cleared Yemeni prisoners, who comprise 56 of those cleared for release but still held, which President Obama imposed in January 2010, after a failed airline bomb plot that was hatched in Yemen.

On May 23, while promising to resume releasing prisoners, President Obama also dropped his ban on releasing any of the cleared Yemenis, but since then no Yemenis have been freed, and just two prisoners out of the 86 — both Algerians — have been released, after the administration made the necessary certifications to Congress.

The great irony, four months since President Obama’s promise to resume releasing prisoners, is that the president only made this promise because he had been provoked into action by the prisoners themselves. In February, in despair at ever being released, or being granted any form of recognizable justice, the majority of the prisoners embarked on a prison-wide hunger strike, which drew the attention of the world’s media, the outrage of NGOs and medical professionals, and public criticism of the prison’s ongoing existence by high-level Democrats — in particular, Sen. Carl Levin, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

And yet, despite this, and despite the fact that only two prisoners have been released, and 84 cleared men still await release, the news from the Pentagon this week is that the hunger strike is “largely over,” as the New York Times described it yesterday.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Samuel House, said that the military “would no longer issue daily updates on the number of inmates participating in the protest, eligible for force-feeding or hospitalized, as had been its practice over the past few months, because the participation has fallen away from its peak two months ago,” as the Times put it.

Lt. Col. House said, “Following July 10, 2013, the number of hunger strikers has dropped significantly, and we believe today’s numbers represent those who wish to continue to strike.” Since September 11, the number of prisoners taking part in the hunger strike has been steady at 19 individuals. This is still considerably more than the seven or so who were long-term hunger strikers when the prison-wide hunger strike began in February, but it is considerably less than the 106 that the military conceded were taking part in the hunger strike from June 28 to July 10.

Noticeably, however, 18 of these 19 men are being force-fed, a process that medical professionals regard as unacceptable, as they have pointed out on several occasions in the last six months.

In April, the American Medical Association (AMA) wrote a letter to the Pentagon stating that “force feeding of detainees violates core ethical values of the medical profession,” and in June, in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, three medical professors wrote, “Military physicians should refuse to participate in any act that unambiguously violates medical ethics,” adding, “Military physicians who refuse to follow orders that violate medical ethics should be actively and strongly supported.”

Shortly after this editorial was published, 153 doctors from the US and around the world condemned the force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantánamo in a letter to President Obama that was published in the Lancet, and in July the British Medical Association (BMA) followed suit, writing to President Obama “urging him to immediately suspend the role of doctors and nurses in force-feeding prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay and to launch an inquiry into how the ‘unjustifiable’ practice ha[d] been allowed to develop.”

Here at “Close Guantánamo,” we believe that focusing on the hunger strike being “largely over” deflects attention from the ongoing violation of the core ethical values of the medical profession that is involved in force-feeding prisoners, and we note that it remains an outrage no matter how many or how few men are being subjected, twice a day, to having tubes inserted up their noses and into their stomachs, and force-fed liquid nutrient.

We also believe that nothing should be allowed to deflect from the importance of releasing cleared prisoners, and urge President Obama to do much more than he has done so far. We demand the release of the 84 cleared prisoners, who include 56 Yemenis and 28 men from other countries, and we insist that, if third countries cannot be found for some of those men who face persecution in their own countries, they should be given new homes in the United States.

If you agree with our demands, please contact the White House and the Department of Defense, as outlined below.

What you can do now

Call the White House and ask President Obama to release all the men cleared for release. Call 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 or submit a comment online.

Call the Department of Defense and ask Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to issue certifications for other cleared prisoners: 703-571-3343.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

15 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I just shared this, Andy.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George. Much appreciated.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Hanann Baghdadi wrote:

    You’re great Andy Worthington.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, what a lovely message to receive, Hanann. Thank you!

  5. Cosmic Surfer (Jan) says...

    Andy –

    Sad, isn’t it?

    A president who promised transparency and accountability; promised to close Guantanamo as soon as he was elected; who promised to regain the respect of the world and build bridges using diplomacy with the Middle East and Islamic nations, has done none of it.

    Instead, he slaughters with drones without regard for due process or for collateral damage (innocents killed becasue they just happened to be there as the missiles hit); threatens to attack Syria while claiming he will commit no new acts of war (Huh?) as if the US is the world’s police force and moral compass (a laughable concept); paying attention to Guantanamo only when the innocent men start a Hunger Strike (and even then, using abusive techniques to force feed and drug those prisoners); keeping his DOJ at the ready to quash any attempt at obtaining basic human rights for those innocent men; “releasing” prisoners to Algeria – men who had left that country due to its own heinous acts against those who disagree with the corruption of the Algerian government – forcing them to return to sure harassment and, for some, sure imprisonment….

    The list of Obama’s crimes against others (to include spying on US citizens and misuse of the FISA court) keeps growing.

    Thank you, as always

  6. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy.

    Here is a link to the recent report the DoD will not get $200 million to rehabilitate the temporary structures at Guantanamo, which weren’t built to last more than a few years, and are worn out.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/25/us/politics/pentagon-denies-money-for-guantanamo-overhaul.html?_r=0

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s interesting, arcticredriver – and the $195.7 million requested by Gen. John F. Kelly, the head of Southcom, includes the $49 million you mentioned in another comment, for upgrading Camp 7, where the small number of “high-value detainees” are held.
    I can’t help but think that it’s meant to send a sign to conscientious liberals that Guantanamo remains a legacy issue rather than an ongoing concern, despite the evidence to the contrary, in Obama’s refusal/inability to do more than release just two prisoners.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jan. Great to hear from you, as always. That’s quite a list of disappointments, and it ought to be enough to persuade anyone paying attention that the military-industrial-intelligence complex is the real heart of the US government – that and Wall Street, of course.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Thanks Andy, how difficult it must be for the Obama administration to tell the truth – here they go again, spinning the perception management as though they just can’t help themselves.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Willy, and the mainstream media of course are complicit as usual – after many months earlier this year when they took the ongoing injustice of Guantanamo on board. I took exception to the New York Times publishing an article with the headline, “Guantánamo Hunger Strike Is Largely Over, U.S. Says,” because it’s just propaganda without the added words, “But 18 Men Still Force-Fed Twice Daily.”

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Kate Pearce wrote:

    There should be a ‘don’t like’ option on FB

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Kate. Yes, perhaps one that feeds through to giant monitors outside the White House and the US Congress (and 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament here in the UK), where we could see how unpopular they are!

  13. Jcee says...

    Appreciate your work for justice, particularly your support for Omar Khadr. Although back here in Canada, his continued detention is a blot on the justice system – especially given the treatment he has endured since his arrest at the age of 15. Given all we know about the case he should be released, but short of that should be placed in a provincial facility and not a maximum security prison as is currently the case.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jcee, for the comments and supportive words. I agree, as you know, that Omar should be released, not least because the Canadian Supreme Court ruled, back in 2010, that the government violated his rights by sending agents to interview him at Guantanamo. I’m hoping that Justice John Rooke, who heard Omar’s plea to be moved to a provincial prison in a hearing in Edmonton on Monday, will approve his move, but I’m not encouraged by his refusal to issue a ruling at the time, or even to specify when he will make a decision: http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/judge-reserves-decision-on-whether-omar-khadr-should-be-moved-to-provincial-prison-1.1466198

  15. Watch the Shocking New Animated Film About the Guantánamo Hunger Strike by Andy Worthington | Dandelion Salad says...

    […] part in the hunger strike, 16 of them are being force-fed. Force-feeding is a brutal process, condemned by the medical profession, but it is difficult to understand what is happening at Guantánamo because no images are available […]

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