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For the 70 Gitmo Prisoners on a Hunger Strike, Closing Gitmo Can't Wait a Year

Closing Guantanamo is not as hard as we're being told. The real challenge will be achieving justice and accountability.
 
 
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Imagine you are sitting in a jail cell. You have been held there for five … siix … seven years. Once again, you are participating in a hunger strike; using the only tool you have -- your own body -- to cry out. It has been 21 days since you last ate of your own volition. And now they insert a tube into your nose, delivering food to keep you alive three times a day. You are being kept alive so that you can continue to be held without charge.

This week, the world celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama and the issue of Guantanamo remained on the front page. Cabinet nominees fielded questions on it, Pentagon officials quarreled over it, and in the days leading up to the inauguration Barack Obama discussed the issue repeatedly. He said closing Guantanamo was necessary, he said it would be a challenge, he said it would take a year; he said he'd be disappointed if the prison were still open at the end of his first term. His transition team said that he'd issue an executive order closing Guantanamo on his first full day in office. And then, maybe not. On Wednesday he said he would suspend military tribunals for four months.

The news filters through the prison walls. First joy. Then questions. And finally, reality. Politics. You continue to sit. You continue to be force fed. The world has moved on, but you have not. You go back to thinking you will die here; you will never again see your family; you will never go home.

Witness Against Torture came to Washington earlier this month to launch a nine-day 'Fast for Justice.' We started on January 11th -- the 7th anniversary of the opening of the interrogation center at Guantanamo -- and broke our fast on inauguration day.

Executive Order? Close Guantanamo, in practice, not on paper

We came to DC heartened by news that Obama could sign an executive order calling for the closure of Guantanamo on his first full day in office. The news was important and crucial first step in changing a policy that was wrongheaded to begin with and has resulted in untold suffering, both for the men who have been imprisoned and those responsible for their imprisonment.

Then it appeared that Obama was backing away from this position. In an interview with the Washington Post, Obama said he would consider it a failure if he did not shut down Guantanamo by the end of his first term. As he said, Guantanamo's closure presents "challenges."

Lost in the abstract discussion of the "challenges" of closing Guantanamo are the 250 men who continue to suffer there.

Since our inception, Witness Against Torture has focused on seeing the humanity of the people our government has told us are the enemy. Even before the claims that Guantanamo was bristling with high level Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives were categorically refuted, we tried to look through bars and barbed wire, across religious and ethnic difference, to see the father, the son, the uncle, the human being.

Human beings like Yasser Talal Abdullah Yahya al Zahrani, a Saudi man who would have celebrated his 24th birthday this September, but apparently took his own life in June of 2006. Yasser was 16 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan and brought to Guantanamo. Yasser's father refuses to believe that his son took his own life. Yasser is one man who will be at Guantanamo -- in a sense -- forever. President Obama's executive order cannot restore a teenage boy to his father. That 16-year-old boy is gone. He is a dead weight that should hang heavy on the American conscience.