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Nancy Talanian Headshot

Not Another Broken Promise on Guantánamo

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GUANTANAMO BAY
Alex Potemkin via Getty Images

One year ago, in a speech at National Defense University, President Obama renewed his commitment to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, calling it "a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law." But in the year since this latest promise, only 12 men have been released. Some 154 prisoners remain, half of whom were unanimously cleared years ago by high-level government officials, including all military branches, who asserted that the men posed no threat to the U.S. or its allies.

To consider what this means in human terms, imagine that in the fall of 2001, while traveling abroad, a war broke out. As you fled to escape the fighting, you were picked up by Afghan or Pakistani villages, turned over to soldiers, and finally sold to the U.S. military in exchange for an advertised bounty of $5,000 or more. Knowing the U.S. government's commitment to justice and human rights, you assured yourself that you would soon be home. Instead, you were held as an "unlawful enemy combatant" and flown to a prison within the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, "A place where there are no laws." Though you have been cleared for release many times and have never been charged with any crime, to this day you do not know when, if ever, you will be allowed to leave.

That's the situation for Ravil Mingazov, a former Russian soldier and ballet dancer still in Guantánamo. After experiencing harassment by the military for converting to Islam (the primary religion of his home region), he traveled in search of a Muslim country where he, his wife and their infant son could live in peace.

After his transfer to Guantánamo Bay prison in 2002, hundreds of men took part in a hunger strike to protest the absence of any legal process to charge or try the men and release those who were found innocent. However, it was not until June 2004, that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rasul v. Bush that the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was not outside of U.S. territory, and therefore, petitioners there have habeas corpus rights -- the right to challenge their detention before a neutral judge.

For the next four years, Ravil and his fellow inmates were given a poor substitute for habeas corpus: Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), in which they were denied legal counsel and the right to present witnesses or to see the evidence against them. According to Stephen Abraham, who audited the CSRTs and served on a three-judge CSRT panel of military officers, the judges were neither given evidence that might support a prisoner's innocence nor told that such evidence existed. If the judges determined that a prisoner was not an enemy combatant and should be released, they were ordered to try the case again. In some cases, a new CSRT panel was assembled at the Pentagon, which invariably found the detainee to be an enemy combatant.

Finally, in June 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that the Guantánamo prisoners had the right to file habeas corpus petitions in federal court to contest their detention. Ravil's chance finally came in 2010, more than 8 years after his capture, when Judge Henry H. Kennedy reviewed the government's case against Ravil, found it lacking, and ordered his immediate release. The Obama administration appealed, claiming it had "new" evidence that had not been presented. Now, four years later, nothing has happened, and Ravil remains in Guantánamo more than 12 years after his capture.

Other prisoners have similar stories. Their only means of protesting this continued injustice is with their bodies. Over a year ago, they began a hunger strike that involved 106 prisoners at its peak. Although the Pentagon no longer reports figures, according to the prisoners' attorneys, about 40 men are continuing to strike, and many of them are enduring excruciating force-feeding.

On Friday, May 23rd, thousands of grassroots activists, human rights organizations, and advocates for the detained men are calling on President Obama and the U.S. Congress to close Guantánamo and end indefinite detention. Springfield, Northampton and Amherst are among the more than forty cities in the United States and abroad where demonstrations are planned. We ask you to call the White House (202-456-1111) today and urge President Obama to fulfill his promise to close Guantánamo.