Disappointed, but not surprised, was my first response to hearing President Barack Obama’s announcement on Wednesday that he would not make the January 22 deadline for closing the prison in Guantanamo Bay.
During attorney visits over the past few weeks, Reprieve’s clients in Guantanamo have expressed their doubts regarding whether President Obama can live up to his promise to close the prison within a year of assuming office. ‘What is he going to do,’ one man asked, “put 200 people on a plane on the 22nd?”
And it is true – the maths doesn’t work. Around 245 prisoners were being held in Guantánamo when Obama was inaugurated in January of this year and only around 30 men have left since then. If releases continue at this snail’s pace, the prison won’t close until at least 2017.
Who are the people who are left in the prison and why is it proving so hard to close?
First there are the 90 or so prisoners from Yemen who the United States will not repatriate because of the country’s instability.
Another 65 people are considered prosecutable in federal courts or military commissions, the details of which are still being hammered out (the latest development being the recent announcement of the future transfer of five men, accused of involvement in Sept. 11 to U.S. Federal Courts for prosecution).
Then there is a group of around 60 men - Guantanamo’s refugees - 18 of whom are represented by Reprieve. Many of these people have been “cleared for release” by United States authorities, meaning they have been deemed to present no threat whatsoever.
These men would be free to leave Guantanamo tomorrow but they remain stranded there because they cannot return to their countries of origin for fear of torture.
They are from places like Uzbekistan, Syria, China, Algeria and Tunisia, countries where their being branded “terrorists” - despite them having been cleared - will make them sitting ducks for authorities with Kafka-esque human rights records.
In June, there was optimism that European states would offer homes to these men, but only a few countries have moved from talk to action. France, Portugal, Ireland, Belgium and the United Kingdom have accepted former prisoners, as well as the unlikely resettlement locations of Bermuda and Palau.
Congress’s refusal – stoked by a scaremongering media - to accept any former prisoners onto American soil, has presented a huge stumbling block that Obama is struggling to scale. It is much more difficult for the U.S. (and Reprieve) to persuade European countries to take former prisoners when the U.S. refuses to do so.
In addition, governments have been hugely wary of the reactions of their political rivals and publics in determining whether to take former prisoners.
It has not helped that Obama himself persists in talking about “The Terrorists” and does not differentiate between the men held in the prison, the bulk of whom were sold for bounties and are far from being the hardened “worst of the worst” some paint them to be. It is worth making the point that the U.S. government has lost 30 of 37 habeas cases – that means that, in 30 instances, a judge, on reviewing the evidence against a prisoner, has found him not to be a threat to the U.S.
It is also worth mentioning the splendid Amherst, Massachusetts, which passed a resolution stating that that the town would welcome ex-Gitmo-prisoners. This has not and will not happen, but the town’s spirit is commendable.
If European States want Guantánamo to be closed they must do more than continue to shake their collective heads and mutter about Obama’s naivety and optimism in setting so short a deadline. It is true that it was a meet-able deadline. But Obama not only needed support from Congress but also from his European allies. Europe needs to step up and offer a home to the cleared prisoners and perhaps then the U.S. will follow its lead. Only then can Obama’s promise of change really begin
This article first appeared on Reuters UK