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U.S. blocks release of hunger-striking Guantanamo Bay detainee

The U.S. government is opposing the release of Guantanamo Bay detainee Tariq Ba Odah, who has been on a hunger strike for eight years and is among the 52 who have been cleared for release from the prison. On Friday, the Justice Department filed a court order opposing his release, but a spokesperson said the Obama administration will still work on resettling him in another country. Jess Bravin, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    Reporter Jess Bravin has been covering issues related to Guantanamo since 2002 and covers the U.S. Supreme Court for The Wall Street Journal. He is also the author of "The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay." He joins me now from Washington, D.C.

    First let's talk about the class of detainees that this individual falls into. He's supposed to be one of 52 who have been cleared for transfer. What does that mean? Who cleared him?

  • JESS BRAVIN, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:

    Well, most of those 52 men were cleared in 2009 and 2010 by a task force of military intelligence and law enforcement officials who the president appointed to review the situation at Guantanamo Bay. A few of them were cleared more recently by what's called a Periodic Review Board that's supposed to reexamine the detainees' cases from time to time to see if they are a threat to U.S. security.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, it seems on the one hand you have the U.S. State Department who wants to get on with this and transfer them away to other countries. And then on the other hand, you've got the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense fighting to keep them there, or apt least not to have a rule imposed to make them move.

  • JESS BRAVIN:

    Well, right. There's a very — there are many, many contradictions you could say in America's Guantanamo policy. And this is just one of them.

    Yes, he is someone who the U.S. government has said should be transferred more than five years ago. In other words, there's no justification really for holding him in Guantanamo Bay. The reason he's there is because the U.S. government, for its own political or diplomatic reasons, hasn't been able to find a place to send him that it considers secure enough. So, that's not really his fault.

    So he has been on hunger strike for eight years, and he has filed what's called a habeas corpus petition in federal district court. That's a legal process by which any prisoner can challenge what they consider to be illegal detention.

    So, he has this legal action going. The government has decided to oppose him, even though, as you say, the State Department recommended dropping the opposition because that would help clear the way to get him out of Guantanamo Bay.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, I'm assuming that other prisoners and their lawyers are watching this and perhaps this is — the precedent being set if this habeas corpus was handed down, if he was I guess compelled to be transferred, that is what is the Department of Justice and Department of Defense does not want because every other detainee would line up.

  • JESS BRAVIN:

    Well, they don't want to encourage other detainees to persist in hunger strikes, although they don't really need a lot of encouragement. Many have been on hunger strike for a long time. They don't like to be told who to do.

    However, as a binding legal matter, it's not precedent in that sense. In other words, just because the government chooses not to oppose his petition does not mean that any other prisoner who files a similar legal action automatically gets the same treatment. They can choose to oppose or not oppose each petition individually, and it does not create a binding legal precedent.

    But in general, the Defense Department, the Justice Department, aren't in the business of acquiescing to what prisoners want. If they are going to transfer this detainee, they want to do it on their terms, not because there's a court order that's hastening the way.

    The State Department feels that the court order would remove a number of obstacles that Congress imposed on detainee transfers after President Obama took office, and it would make it somewhat easier to get this guy who now weighs about 75 pounds out of detention and into some other country.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And let's talk that. I mean, he's being kept alive through forced feeding. Describe this process. I mean, he can't be a healthy human being at 75 pounds.

  • JESS BRAVIN:

    Well, that's about half of his typical weight, or his normal weight, according to the Defense Department. I mean, the only information we have on his condition is from the government. It's a daily process where you're strapped to a chair and a feeding tube is inserted in your nose and a sort of Ensure-like liquid is pumped into you.

    Actually, right now, there is a court action that's been filed by a number of news organizations, including "The Wall Street Journal," that is seeking to have videotapes of the force feeding process of a different detainee released so the public can see for itself how humane this process is. Detainees say it's not. The government says that it is.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Jess Bravin of "The Wall Street Journal" — thanks so much.

  • JESS BRAVIN:

    Of course.

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