As Obama’s Term Winds Down, Concerns Grow Over Guantanamo

September 25, 2015
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U.S. military guards walk within Camp Delta at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Two Guantanamo Bay detainees were sent back to their home countries in the last week — the first men to be transferred from the military prison since June.

But with less than 16 months remaining in President Barack Obama’s term, advocates for shutting down the controversial prison are increasingly on edge that it won’t be closed before he leaves office, leaving the fate of scores of detainees in the hands of the next administration.

Saudi detainee Abdul Shalabi, 39, and Moroccan detainee Younis Abdurrahman Chekkouri, 47, were released after spending a combined 26 years in the military prison. Both men were initially captured near the Afghanistan border in December 2001, and both have spent more than a decade in prison without facing criminal charges.

Shalabi, the Saudi detainee released this week, arrived at the naval station prison in Cuba the day it opened in January 2002. Though he has consistently denied association with Al Qaeda, U.S. officials believe he was once a body guard for Osama bin Laden, according to a Department of Defense document. For years he maintained a hunger strike to protest his incarceration; his weight dropped to 101 pounds and for nine years he had to be fed through a tube daily to avoid starvation.

Shalabi was returned to his native Saudi Arabia, where he has been enrolled in a rehabilitation program. His attorney told security officials that he hopes to return to a family life and finish college.

Chekkouri, a Moroccan national who was released last week, was brought to Guantanamo in May 2002 after being caught with a group of extremist fighters fleeing Tora Bora, and is suspected to have been a close associate of Osama bin Laden, according to a military dossier obtained by The New York Times. He admitted to founding an Islamist group in Morocco with alleged ties to terrorists, but had been been approved to leave Guantanamo for more than five years.

Upon returning home, however, Chekkouri was detained by Moroccan officials and is now imprisoned without bail. His attorney, Cori Crider of the human rights organization Reprieve, reports that Moroccan prosecutors have threatened to file charges of “attempts to disrupt the security of the country.” A judge will decide in two weeks whether to formally charge him. Other Guantanamo prisoners have been detained for days or weeks at a time after they are transferred to their home countries; a handful have faced prosecution and further jailtime.

“I’m worried that my client is about to go through a rerun, in a less fair system,” said Crider.

Chekkouri’s uncertain future aside, his release from Guantanamo, and that of Shalabi, brings the total count of Guantanamo detainees to 114, from a peak of 680 in 2003. Of the remaining detainees, 51 have been recommended for indefinite detention because they are deemed too dangerous to release, while 10 others have been convicted or are being prosecuted for a crime. The remaining 53 have been recommended for transfer.

But attorneys and advocates for detainees have been dismayed by what they describe as the slow pace of releases in recent months.

“Really, to call it a trickle is an overstatement,” said human rights attorney David Remes, who represents 16 of the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo. “It’s slower than a trickle.”

On his first day in office, Obama announced that he would close the prison. He has cited human rights concerns about holding suspects indefinitely without trial, and deplored the cost of their protracted incarceration.

But progress toward closing the prison has been sluggish. In the 80 months since Obama was inaugurated, 123 detainees have been released, compared to 532 transfers during the Bush administration. At that pace, critics of the prison are resigned to the growing likelihood that it will remain open into the next president’s term.

“If you do the math, there aren’t that many days left before the end of Obama’s term,” said attorney Rob Kirsch, who represented six clients that have been transferred from the prison camp. “There aren’t that many men left to release, but at the rate they’re going, they won’t make it.”

Much of the criticism for the pace of transfers has been aimed at the Department of Defense. After a multi-departmental security board unanimously agrees that a detainee is no longer a threat to national security, the secretary of defense is responsible for the final sign-off allowing for a detainee’s release. This last step can take years, and often appears intentionally slow, said Wells Dixon, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal organization that represents several detainees.

“Unless we see additional transfers in the coming weeks, these two latest will just be another example of what we refer to as a policy of ‘give a little bit,’ whereby the secretary of defense sort of drags his feet until criticism builds, and then one or two detainees are released so it looks like they’re doing something,” he said. “And then all momentum ceases.”

A DOD spokesperson told FRONTLINE in July that “unfortunately, this process can be slowed unnecessarily by burdensome legislative provisions,” and that the department is “taking all practicable steps to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo.”

But the delays have rankled many inside Obama’s administration. When he left office early this year, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told CNN that the Guantanamo issue had been a source of major friction between him and the White House.

Under his replacement, Ashton Carter, the pace of transfers has only slowed. In two years of office, Hagel oversaw 44 transfers. Since taking office in February, Secretary Carter has transferred eight prisoners; six of those had been previously approved by Hagel.

In July, Carter was reportedly called into a meeting with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and asked to make decisions on newly proposed transfers within 30 days, but the meeting ended without him agreeing to those terms.

“Hagel was supposedly let go partly because of his obstinance, so there was hope for a minute that Carter would be less so. But it doesn’t look like it,” said attorney Cori Crider of the London-based human rights organization Reprieve.

In an illustration of the thorny politics around Guantanamo, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), released a statement this week opposing Shalabi’s transfer, and accusing Obama of “playing politics with national security and putting campaign promises ahead of U.S. national security interest.” In February, Cotton stated in a security hearing that “the only problem with Guantanamo Bay is that there are too many empty beds and cells there.”

“As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell. But as long as they don’t do that, they can rot in Guantanamo Bay,” he said.

In order to close Guantanamo, the administration would have to transfer inmates to a new facility on U.S. soil. All summer, the White House has said a plan for such a move will be released imminently. In August, Carter said the administration was eyeing military bases in either Kansas or South Carolina as a potential new home for the inmates.

That suggestion didn’t fly with the state’s Republican governors. “We are not going to allow any terrorists to come into South Carolina,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told press in August. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said his state would “fight this with everything we’ve got.”

That early resistance has Guantanamo critics questioning whether the administration is prepared to spend further political capital on the plan.

“We don’t see any evidence that the president is willing to work aggressively on closing Guantanamo, so we expect the plan will fail,” said Dixon.

If the plan does fail, it will be left to the next administration to resolve. Leading Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has yet to lay out her proposed policy on Guantanamo. Leading Republican candidates have either been quiet on the issue or indicated that they would not close it. Last week, Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, who has recently surged in the polls, told reporters she opposed closing the facility.

“I don’t think you fix things that aren’t broken,” Fiorina said.  “I don’t think Gitmo is broken, [so we should] keep it open.”

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