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William Fisher: Will Gitmo Go Away?

Will Gitmo Go Away?


By William Fisher

The US Government today sought to distance itself from a statement calling the suicides of three Guantanamo Bay prisoners "a good PR move to draw attention" as human rights groups, legal experts and newspapers in the Middle East renewed calls for the prison's closing.

Colleen Graffy, deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state for public diplomacy, told the British Broadcasting Corporation over last weekend that the suicides at the US-run camp in Cuba were a "good P.R. move to draw attention" and "a tactic to further the jihadi cause."

And Guantanamo's commander, Rear Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., poured more fuel on the fire by saying the three who took their lives "are smart, they are creative, they are committed. They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."

The three men - two Saudis and a Yemeni - ended their lives by hanging themselves in their cells on Saturday. There have been numerous earlier suicide attempts, but the three are believed to be the only successful ones.

There are some 460 prisoners at the US Naval Base. Many have been detained without charges for more than four years. Only ten have been charged with a crime and there have been no trials. There have also been widespread hunger strikes, with prisoners being force-fed with the help of military physicians and other medical personnel.

Yesterday State Department spokesman Sean McCormack struggled to distance the Administration of George W. Bush from Ms. Graffy's remarks. He said, "We would not say that it was a P.R. stunt. We have serious concerns anytime anybody takes their own life."

But he added that while the United States did not wish to become the world's jailer, Guantanamo housed "dangerous citizens" who were a threat to the world.

And State Department legal adviser, John Bellinger, said the US regretted the suicides and that the Bush administration had "worked hard to improve conditions at Guantanamo."

Graffy's boss, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, is charged with improving
the US image in the Arab world. The former White House communications adviser and longtime Bush aide heads an office at the State Department that monitors and responds to inaccurate or distorted portrayals of US views and actions in the Arab media.

Graffy's remarks were quickly picked up in the Arab press.

Lebanon's The Daily Star newspaper said, "Her comments quickly appeared to be bad P.R. moves for the U.S. administration."

An editorial in Saudi Arabia's Arab News called the suicides a "tragedy was just waiting to happen." It added, "These deaths reflect the desperation for a basic human need - a need for justice, a need to have someone hear what these incarcerated people have to say, then be duly punished if a crime has been committed or be set free. Three of the detainees are now gone without ever having seen a court or enjoyed a system of justice that is held so dearly by their captors."

Egypt's influential Al-Ahram newspaper said, "Washington, which considers itself the sponsor of democracy and human rights in the world... appears today as the main suspect in the violation of these rights."

An editorial in the pan-Arab Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper wrote that "The prevalent belief is that they died of torture...The whole world should act and compel the current US Administration to retract from this disgraceful violation of human rights and close the Guantanamo detention center immediately without delay."

Syria's Tishrin newspaper said President George W. Bush "did not voice his growing concern about the suicide of three detainees in Guantanamo out of sadness about the suicides or because of the tragic situation of those who are still alive 'dead' in this Nazi detention center. Bush's concern is absolutely about his own situation and the continuously collapsing image of his method, which took him to the bottom figures in US opinion polls."

Pakistan's Daily Pakistan newspaper called for an "impartial international tribunal" to "carry out a probe of matters at Guantanamo prison so that actual facts can come to the surface."

Many major media outlets in the US voiced similar opinions.

Human rights and religious advocates were at least as harsh.

Reed Brody, Special Counsel for Human Rights Watch, said, "At long last, it is time for the administration to ask itself whether the humiliation, brutalization, and torture of Muslim detainees around the world is making us safer from terrorism or is in fact fanning the flames of resentment and making it easier for the jihadists to find recruits for their evil cause."

Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA, told us, "Amnesty International is calling for an independent investigation into the deaths of the three Guantanamo detainees who apparently committed suicide. Amnesty has long been concerned for the mental health of prisoners at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, who are being held for years on end without charge and without trial and possibly abused. We call on President Bush to put an end to this human rights scandal and ensure that all detainees in the 'war on terror' are brought to fair trial or released."

Rev. Tim Simpson of the Christian Alliance declared, "The deaths of the detainees are tragic on several levels. Any death at one's own hands is certainly a tragedy in Christian ethics because life is a gift from God. But in this case, the matter is compounded by the cold hard fact of their detention. They may have been innocent -- all we have is the government's word to the contrary and that has no credibility. So they may have killed themselves out of despair. Or they truly may have been guilty of what the government has claimed and killed themselves to become martyrs. Either way, we should never have let them die. Our national conscience will be violated if they were innocent and our national safety will be compromised if they were guilty, so there is no way that this could do anything but bring harm to our country."

Elisa Massimino, Washington Director of Human Rights First, called the suicides. "the latest symptom of a chaotic U.S. detention system, which has proven a policy, legal and ethical failure across the board. Holding people indefinitely, without access to family, regular legal process, or independent medical care, is an invitation to disaster."

Bill Goodman, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, accused the Bush Administration of "systematically and deliberately" denying Guantanamo detainees "their most basic rights through a policy of choking off all contact, communication, information and hope. For this administration to now claim that these suicides were acts of war by men who have no regard for human life is powerful evidence that the Bush Administration itself has no conception of the desperation they have caused."

Goodman added, "This government has consistently fought to keep these men from lawyers, doctors and others who were willing to help them. Now in attempting to deny the truth this administration will not only cause more pain and misery amongst the detainees at Guantánamo, it will ultimately undermine fundamental democratic institutions of the United States."

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only humanitarian agency to be granted access to Guantanamo prisoners, called on the US to arrange a special visit in the wake of the suicides.

Brian J. Foley, law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, voiced the view of many legal experts. He told us, "There's a fourth suicide at Gitmo: our values. By caving in to collective fear of terrorism, and giving the executive branch absolute power to wage war, wiretap, and imprison people indefinitely without charge based on hearsay and confessions wrenched out by torture, the American people have snuffed out their own values. We've collectively snuffed out our own responsibility to oversee and influence what our government does in our name."

Zachary Katznelson, a British lawyer for a Guantanamo prisoner, called the Bush Administrration's reaction "a desperate attempt at spin." He said, "The US claims this was an act of war or a public relations exercise. The truth is quite different. Islam says it goes against God to kill yourself. So what would drive a man to take his own life, despite his religious beliefs? The answer shames the US and its allies, Britain prominently included."

Professor Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution, said whatever damage control the State Department tried, it would not overcome negative views, particularly in the Arab world.

He said the mistrust is so deep that some Arab media were questioning whether the deaths were suicides at all. "At this point, public diplomacy simply cannot overcome the prevailing perceptions in the region towards the US."

President Bush said Sunday that he would like to see Guantanamo closed and its detainees tried in the US. But Guantanamo inmates have filed numerous appeals to US courts -- one case has reached the Supreme Court -- but the government thwarted most of these appeals by claims of national security. Any new appeals will fall under a new law that deprives the inmates of the centuries-old right of habeas corpus to challenge their imprisonment. Government lawyers have sought to dismiss pending appeals by applying the new law retroactively.

Guantanamo Bay is a US military facility leased from the Cuban Government. The US began sending prisoners there in 2002, believing they would be out of reach of US courts. But the Supreme Court ruled that the prison was within the reach of the American justice system since the US had effective control over the territory.

Most, though not all, Guantanamo prisoners were picked up in Afghanistan during the US war against the Taliban. While Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld characterized the detainees as "the worst of the worst," some of the prisoners are known to have been "sold" by Afghan warlords for fees to US forces in Afghanistan, and others appear simply to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Recently, the Pentagon has begun a program to release about a third of the approximately 460 prisoners. Some have been freed without condition. Others have been returned to their home countries for further detention by authorities there.

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