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Is halting Guantánamo trials enough?

Within hours of taking office, President Barack Hussein Obama has issued an order to stop the military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay in order to review and possible overhaul them. Many would have hoped that the decision would have gone well beyond a mere review of the Military Commissions’ process. However there has been a clear message that justice will be provided to the detainees.

The projected aim of the new administration to close the base has been declared a triumph from those in his camp. Although the human rights community has welcomed this position despite its delayed arrival, there are a number of questions that still hang heavy around the neck of those who must find an alternative solution.

One of the main sticking points that will be brought by human rights campaigners is the volume of detainees being held as part of the “war on terror” elsewhere in the world. With reports of 24,000 detainees in Iraq and 14,000 in secret detention – the numbers seem astronomical compared with the 250 or so detainees remaining in Guantánamo. In light of the numbers, dealing with Guantánamo is the easy option for President Obama despite his attempts to show an overt commitment to human rights and the rule of law. The extent to which such policies will be taken further to those detained outside of Guantánamo will still need to be seen.

From the perspective of abuse and torture, the detainees unanimously agree that Guantánamo was by far more humane than any of the prisons they were detained in elsewhere. Detainees speak of their time in Bagram Airbase and the Dark Prison, both in Afghanistan, and both steeped in some of the worst offences by US soldiers against detainees. Despite the scandal to emerge from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the volume of those detained in detention without charge in US department of defence (DoD) facilities remains staggering and well beyond reasonable especially in light of the grievances attached to Guantánamo.

Measures have already been drafted to bring about a change in policy from the Bush period as legislation is used as a key tool to counteract illegality. On 6 January 2009, Senator Feinstein of California proposed the lawful interrogation and Detention Act 2009 purportedly aiming to: “reverse the harmful, dangerous, un-American, and illegal detention and interrogation practices of the past seven years.” The Feinstein proposal has four aims that it seeks to achieve in helping to change the status quo of detention policies:

  • The detention camps at Guantánamo Bay must be closed.
  • The CIA’s coercive interrogation programme is to be outlawed.
  • Civilian contractors must be prevented from being involved in the process of interrogation.
  • CIA black sites used as part of the programme of secret detention must be ended.

The implementation of the above points would be hailed as a great victory by human rights groups and would prove that change is possible under the new Obama regime. In the words of Senator Feinstein, these changes would allow for detainees to:

Be charged with a crime and tried in the United States in the Federal civilian or military justice systems. These systems have handled terrorists and other dangerous individuals before, and are capable of dealing with classified evidence and other unusual factors.

With all the attention both through the media and politically being on Guantánamo, the question of justice for Muslim suspected terrorists in the US legal system has never truly been raised.

The presidency of Barack Obama has been one that has threatened hope for change in attitudes and history. Decades of African-Americans being incapable of receiving fair trials in certain courts in the US has brought about the need for a major shift in policy: nothing has said that more clearly than the election of a black president. It is this point in itself that provides the greatest challenge to the new administration. How will it stop Muslims becoming the new blacks in the US judicial system, when a number of cases suggest that it is inconceivable that they could possibly receive a fair trial?
One case that is of particular importance is that of Ali Saleh al-Marri, the last enemy combatant on US soil. For seven and half years he has been detained in the US without having been charged with any crime; in his case, Guantánamo is in the US as much as it is in Cuba.

Al-Marri’s case is only one though among a sea of others wrought with procedural and ethical difficulties. Biased juries, insufficient evidence and disproportionate sentencing have become a key feature of the way in which Muslim suspected terrorists are treated. Sabri ben Kahla was detained as part of Virginia Paintball trials and acquitted of any involvement with jihad or terrorism. Kahla was later detained again on a perjury charge and convicted on the same facts as the original case to a sentence of 10 years. The prosecution’s case rested on evidence by Evan Kohlmann, a purported terrorism “expert” who gave evidence on jihad movements around the world without ever referencing Ben Kahla’s guilt – the guilty verdict was very much based on Kahla’s Muslim identity rather than any tangible evidence.

The imminent closure of Guantánamo Bay is a policy change that should be praised. However by itself it does not represent the necessary paradigm shift that proves that the US has truly changed its attitude in detention policies in the “war on terror”. Public opinion in the US may have improved over the years in relation to the African-American community, however there is a very real danger that the bias may have merely displaced itself on to Muslims – a community which to all intents and purposes has become the new black.



source: www.islam21c.com

Also posted at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/21/guantanamo-barackobama


About Asim Qureshi

Dr Asim Qureshi is a Human Rights Lawyer and is Co-DIrector of CAGE UK (previously known as Cageprisoners) where he works as the senior researcher. Asim has led investigations into Pakistan, Bosnia, Kenya, Sudan, Sweden, USA and around the UK. With his team of researchers, he has written and published many reports exposing the use of unlawful detention, rendition, and torture in the 'war on terror'. He is also the author of the book, "Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance". The work analyses the global detention policies in the 'War on Terror' post 11th September 2001 and the impact on those most affected.


  1. Smokescreen
    The difference between Bush and Ubama is that of the diner who eats with a spoon and his colleague who prefers a knife and fork. How many of the 40,000 unaccounted for detainees will see freedom? How many of them will see justice? Hany of the 40,000 are women or children? How many have/are being raped? How many have been tortured? Does America, whether under Ubama or anyone else, want to deal with that? Does America want to free those who it deems it’s political enemies in a war-zone?


    Ubama is there because the cycle of politics demanded change. Policy and the onward march of US Imperialism is another matter and we would be foolish to be distracted enough to not recognise the enormity of what lies ahead. Now we will see the US trying to maintain it has resecured the moral high-ground, only in order to further another phase of Imperialism which naked aggression alone can not: Millions and millions of dead world-wide, whatever their faith or sex, have been laid waste at the alter of the depraved US Icon of Freedom. The US needs to account for a lot more than what it admits to. Do our current institutions retain sufficient capacity, community support and even the vision to pursue such an agenda effectively?

  2. Fatima Barkatulla

    Obama orders CIA to stop torturing terror suspects

    President continues reversal of Bush policies by confirming Guantanamo closure
    From the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/obama-orders-cia-to-stop-torturing-terror-suspects-1513428.html
    By Leonard Doyle in Washington
    Friday, 23 January 2009

    Barack Obama has ordered the CIA to cease the torture and mistreatment of terrorist suspects and to shut down its notorious network of secret prisons around the world. As anticipated, he signed an order yesterday which means the Guantanamo Bay jail in Cuba will be closed within a year.

    Mr Obama said at the State Department that in this “twilight struggle” he wanted to send, “an unmistakable signal that our actions in defence of liberty will be (as) just as our cause”. The directive said it “shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order”.

    The US is still holding 245 suspects in Guantanamo, only a handful of whom are believed to be senior members of al-Qai’da. Many are ordinary Arabs who were caught up in security sweeps in Afghanistan and Pakistan and have been left stateless. But it is not known how many suspects captured by the CIA were sent off to be interrogated in secret prisons.

    The outgoing CIA chief, Michael Hayden, says it is “fewer than 100”. Because some of the interrogators fear they could be prosecuted for war crimes, video tapes of interrogations and other records have also disappeared. The existence of a secret CIA prisons network and the policy of “rendition” – secretly removing suspects to countries where torture is practised – has caused international outrage. Decisions must now be made on whether inmates should be transferred, released or prosecuted in the US.

    Mr Obama’s new overall spy chief, Dennis Blair, said Guantanamo must be shut down because it had become “a damaging symbol to the world”.

    “It is a rallying cry for terrorist recruitment and harmful to our national security,” he said. Mr Blair, a retired admiral and veteran of the intelligence community, enthusiastically backed Mr Obama’s new approach and said he would rigorously enforce it. “I believe strongly that torture is not moral, legal or effective,” he said.

    Four inmates have killed themselves at Guantanamo and other detainees have held hunger strikes. A senior Pentagon official testified last week that a detainee, suspected of being the “20th hijacker” in the attacks of 2001, was tortured.

    Mr Obama and his newly confirmed Secretary State, Hillary Clinton, also addressed diplomats, announcing a new era of engagement with the world following eight years in which diplomacy has been emasculated.

    The CIA is continuing to demand the right to use aggressive interrogation techniques. Gregory Craig, the White House legal counsel, indicated to Congress that the new rules might be bent to allow certain unspecified techniques. The spy agency has used brutal force to extract information from senior figures within the al-Qai’da network, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

    Take two… President sworn in again

    *Barack Obama has been sworn in for a second time because one word was said out of place at his inauguration. As he read the oath for Mr Obama to recite on Tuesday, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, John Roberts, was supposed to say “faithfully execute the office of the President” but said the word “faithfully” after the word “President”. White House lawyers said they decided to do it again “out of an abundance of caution”. Mr Obama joked: “We’re going to do it again very slowly.”

    Clinton takes charge for’new era’

    Hillary Clinton arrived to take charge of the State Department yesterday, proclaiming the start of a new era of robust US diplomacy to tackle the world’s crises and improve America’s standing abroad. Before a raucous, cheering crowd, the nation’s 67th Secretary of State pledged to boost the morale and resources of the diplomatic corps and promised them a difficult but exciting road ahead.

    “I believe with all of my heart this is a new era for America,” she said in the main lobby of the department’s headquarters.

    Her mandate is to step up diplomatic efforts and restore the nation’s image overseas. She has vowed to make use of “smart power” to deal with challenges. After her speech, she made telephone calls to foreign leaders, toured some of the key offices and received briefings before hosting President Obama, Vice-Preisdent Joe Biden and national security adviser James Jones.

  3. This is a really good exploration of a subject that very few people really know about. I learnt alot and you’ve tied the information together very well. The closure of Gunatnamo is obviously a step in the right direction, but this does not go far enough as the article highlights. The US has to take a holistic approach and undertake an overhaul of the unjust stop-gap structures and measures that the Bush administration used to fight the ‘war on terror’. In other words, embracing a new policy of justice over order. Without being too pessimistic, its easy to view Gunatanamo’s closure as a good thing but is there an element of superficial symbolism? The words and the rhtoric are great, but what of the end result? It is for this reason that its so important to remain cautious.

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