April 24, 2013
Despair Drives Guantánamo Detainees to Revolt
By CHARLIE SAVAGE
GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — In the early afternoon quiet, guards in camouflage fatigues walked the two-tiered cellblocks of Camp Six, where the most cooperative of the 166 terrorism suspects held in the military prison here are housed. From a darkened control room, other guards watched banks of surveillance monitors showing prisoners in white clothing — pacing, sleeping or reading — in their cells.
But the relative calm on display to visiting reporters last week was deceiving. Days earlier, guards had raided Camp Six and locked down protesting prisoners who had blocked security cameras, forbidding them to congregate in a communal area. A hunger strike is now in its third month, with 93 prisoners considered to be participating — more than half the inmates and twice the number before the raid.
“They are not done yet, and they will not be done until there is more than one death,” said a Muslim adviser to the military, identified as “Zak” for security reasons, who fears there may be suicides. Only one thing, he predicted, will satisfy the detainees: if someone is allowed to leave.
The spark for the protest is disputed. Detainees, through their lawyers, say that when guards conducted a search of their cells on Feb. 6, they handled their Korans in a disrespectful way. Prison officials dispute that.
But both military officials and lawyers for the detainees agree about the underlying cause of the turmoil: a growing sense among many prisoners, some of whom have been held without trial for more than 11 years, that they will never go home.
While President Obama made closing the prison a top priority when he entered the White House, he put that effort on the back burner in the face of Congressional opposition to his plan to move the detainees to a Supermax facility inside the United States.
The prisoners “had great optimism that Guantánamo would be closed,” Gen. John F. Kelly, who oversees the prison as head of the United States Southern Command, recently told Congress. “They were devastated when the president backed off — at least their perception — of closing the facility.”
That disappointment was heightened by Mr. Obama’s decision in January 2011 to sign legislation to restrict the transfers of prisoners. More than half the inmates were designated three years ago for transfer to another country if security conditions could be met, but the transfers dried up. And early this year, the Obama administration reassigned, without replacing, the diplomat who had negotiated the transfers.
“President Obama has publicly and privately abandoned his promise to close Guantánamo,” said Carlos Warner, a lawyer who represents one of 17 hunger strikers being kept alive by force-feeding through nasal tubes. “His tragic political decision has caused the men to lose all hope. Thus, many innocent men have chosen death over a life of unjust indefinite detention.”
In interviews with nearly three dozen current and former administration, military and Congressional officials, lawyers for the detainees, and outside policy specialists, a clear consensus emerged on the result of the impasse over Guantánamo’s future: It has become a place where no new prisoners arrive and no one can leave, and it makes little sense.
“The situation is not sustainable,” said Kenneth Wainstein, the top national security official at the Justice Department in the Bush administration. “There are strong, principled arguments on both sides, but all of us across the spectrum have to acknowledge that this is far from an ideal situation and we need an exit strategy.”
Administration defenders blame Congress — especially Republicans who used Mr. Obama’s effort to close the prison as political ammunition — for the quagmire. Still, even if Mr. Obama had sent the inmates to a domestic prison, the problems raised by the perpetual imprisonment of detainees deemed risky but untriable would persist.
William Lietzau, the top detainee policy official at the Pentagon, argued that the difficulty the administration has had in closing the prison — which it sees as a propaganda symbol for terrorists and as a much more expensive facility to operate than a domestic one — should be considered separately from its effort to develop “principled, credible and sustainable” detention policies.
When the two become linked, he said, “it sometimes feeds the implicit narrative that having detainees at Guantánamo is somehow inherently unlawful or immoral.”
“But the Supreme Court has upheld wartime detention,” Mr. Lietzau said, “which is the humanitarian alternative to killing in war. We want to close Guantánamo, but not because detaining in war is immoral.”
The Bush administration brought 779 prisoners to Guantánamo, and 240 were still here when Mr. Obama took office. Of the 166 who remain, the Obama administration considers several dozen too dangerous to release but impossible to prosecute. A smaller number are designated for trial, but recent court rulings curtailing military commissions may have shrunk that number to as few as a dozen.
And then there are the 86 prisoners designated for transfer if security conditions can be met. While Congress blocked any transfers to countries that raised security issues throughout 2011, lawmakers later gave the Pentagon the power to waive most restrictions on a case-by-case basis. The administration, however, has not used that authority.
“The administration hasn’t taken any steps toward meeting the requirements of having anybody released,” said Representative Howard P. McKeon, Republican of California, who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “It’s just a political game. They like to point to this as our intransigence, but we have worked with them.”
The risk aversion comes amid claims by intelligence agencies that 16 percent of 603 former detainees were “confirmed” — and an additional 11 percent were “suspected” — of taking part in terrorist activities after they left Guantánamo. While that would also suggest that 72 percent are living quietly, any more releases would create some jeopardy, both direct and political.
Still, the fact that the United States continues to imprison men long since designated for potential transfer is a source of growing criticism. Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, singled out those prisoners when she recently denounced the prison.
“As a first step,” she said, “those who have been cleared for release must be released. This is the most flagrant breach of individual rights” at Guantánamo.
Mr. Lietzau said it was wrong to portray that group as “cleared.” The government considers them part of the enemy, and the courts, he said, did not order their release. Even foot soldiers pose a potential threat of terrorism if released to a nation that cannot provide credible security assurances.
“I think transfers should be an executive branch, commander in chief decision,” he said, “but even if the legislative restrictions were removed, I don’t believe the numbers would change radically.”
Indeed, about 56 of those designated for possible transfer come from Yemen, to which Mr. Obama himself indefinitely barred further repatriations — a year before Congress imposed its most severe restrictions — because of Yemen’s active Al Qaeda branch.
The restrictions have sometimes caused other problems. There is no exception for prisoner exchanges, even with a waiver. One official said that helped scuttle a proposal last year to exchange several Taliban detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by militants since 2009: the administration could offer only house arrest in Qatar, not release.
Adding to the impression of indifference, the administration has missed by more than a year a deadline imposed by Mr. Obama to hold the first round of parole-style hearings by new “Periodic Review Boards” to see if others should be designated for transfer. Several officials said the delay stemmed from interagency fights over how the boards should handle evidence obtained by torture or cruel treatment. In particular, they said, the C.I.A. has resisted any formal pronouncement that its interrogators violated that standard.
But keeping the prison open presents a mounting set of problems. If the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and the “hot war” there ends, leaving only the amorphous war against Al Qaeda, legal authority to keep holding detainees will probably come under new challenge. And the military is holding in Afghanistan about 50 non-Afghan prisoners deemed “enduring security threats” who Congressional Republicans say should be transferred to Guantánamo.
Congress included no medical exception in its ban on bringing detainees into the United States, but facilities at Guantánamo lack costly equipment that may become necessary as detainees age; a medical commander told reporters she could not perform radiation therapy or kidney dialysis, for example.
And the prison is beginning to deteriorate. Southcom has asked for about $200 million to rebuild guard barracks; erect a new Camp Seven for high-level detainees — the existing one, which reporters are not allowed to see, is said to have foundation problems; replace a hurricane-damaged and rusting food facility; and make other improvements suitable for a permanent operation. The Pentagon, amid other budget cutbacks, is set to decide next month whether to approve the spending.
“I’m assuming Guantánamo will be closed some day, but if we look into the past 11 years, it was supposed to be temporary,” General Kelly told Congress. “Who knows where it’s going?”
For now, the military is sending nearly 40 additional nurses and doctors to deal with the hunger strike. But since any decision to start transferring low-level prisoners again will be made in Washington, prison officials’ power to alleviate the crisis is limited.
Sitting in front of what the military said were improvised weapons like mop handles discovered in the raid, the prison warden, Col. John Bogdan, told reporters he had repeatedly met with detainee leaders to persuade them to comply with rules again, but was unable to give what they wanted.
“They were asking to be released from Gitmo,” he said. “I can’t do that.”
© 2012 The New York Times Company
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