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

Human Rights

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.

Real people continue to suffer at Guantanamo, and it seems Obama is trimming his moral sails to meet the political wind. In a retreat from earlier promises -- it appears that the new administration is willing to let them languish while it takes its time figuring out how to close this prison.

Guantanamo must be closed, and not just on paper, but in reality. For the 250 men still there, over 70 of whom are currently on hunger strike, it has already been seven years too long. One more day is too long. Another year is unacceptable.

It took George Bush from September 11, 2001 until January 11, 2002 to open Guantanamo. There is no practical reason that should prevent Barack Obama from closing it in the same amount of time.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and other human rights groups have developed plans for closing Guantanamo immediately, including how to handle those the U.S. is unable to prosecute but are supposedly "too dangerous" to release -- without creating a new judicial system or a preventive detention scheme, both of which can only be seen as an extension of Guantanamo.

The real challenge is justice

There are a number of challenges posed by closing Guantanamo, though they are not the ones that politicians and pundits alike refer to. The challenge is how the United States begins to acknowledge what the Bush administration has done -- in our name and with our tax dollars -- in places like Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and say to the rest of the world that we renounce it. We must press for accountability and even prosecution -- not for revenge or out of anger -- but so that we can move forward as a nation, beginning to heal the damage done to our collective soul by shattering the men in Guantanamo.

The U.S. servicemen and women who have been made to work in Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been ordered to do horrific things which they will carry with them forever. Those who have created these policies must also be accountable to these service members; we call for a truth and reconciliation process in which those policy makers responsible for this nightmare are made to confront the soldiers who have been the arms and legs of the monster they created.

Even then, Guantanamo will not be behind us, because -- despite all the problems -- it is the best foreign prison we run. We need to ask why the dignity and rights won for those at Guantanamo are not applied to the other 20,000 detainees being held in U.S. prisons -- some of which we know about, others we don't -- around the globe?

Promises of "change" and "hope" and "yes we can" cannot be fulfilled merely by President Obama putting the country on his back and marching it towards some abstract vision of justice. If we as a people -- whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative -- are serious about a restoring our nation's soul, we must meet these challenges and we all must work together.

Join us and let us work together for swift, comprehensive and compassionate action aimed at restoring men to their families and reckoning with the crime that is Guantanamo and, more broadly, the crime that is the Bush administration's war on terror prison architecture -- the other Guantanamos all over the world. Yes, we can meet these challenges. Yes, we can close Guantanamo. Together, we can.

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