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April 11, 2013

After Years of Broken Promises, Time for Leadership on Guantanamo

This is a cross post from The Huffington Post.

More than 11 years after Shaker Aamer was first seized from Afghanistan and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, the now 47-year-old lawful British resident remains stuck in the U.S. prison. He's never been charged with a crime. He's never met his 11-year-old son.

In fact, Aamer has twice been cleared for release from Guantanamo - first by the Bush Administration and again by the Obama Administration. And the UK government has said it wants him back. Yet inexplicably, he remains imprisoned in the offshore U.S. military facility.

Like the 85 other men who've been cleared for release or transfer yet remain incarcerated at Guantanamo without charge or trial, Aamer has grown desperate. He's joined the growing population of detainees now engaged in a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention without charge by the U.S. government - for many of them, for more than a decade.

On Thursday, 25 U.S.-based human rights and justice organizations sent a letter to President Obama urging him to make good on a promise he made more than four years ago: to end indefinite detention and close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility. The Security with Human Rights campaign is also coordinating a national day of action.

The tension is rising as more than 100 of the 166 detainees at Guantanamo are now refusing food, according to what the men have told their lawyers. The military claims it's more like 1 in 4. But the situation's gotten bad enough that Guantanamo officials are now notifying lawyers for the hunger strikers if prison officials are force-feeding their clients - a practice that violates the humanitarian guidelines of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Medical Association because it robs them of their most basic sense of human dignity.

In addition to the 86 cleared for release, another 46 have been secretly designated by the Obama administration as stuck at Guantanamo for the indefinite future - never to be charged or tried for any crimes. We still don't know who they are.

This is the United States, folks, and although the Guantanamo Bay prison is in Cuba, a country with which we still refuse to have diplomatic relations, the U.S. military base is, for all intents and purposes, U.S. soil. Yet we would never imagine detaining suspects (of unspecified acts) in U.S. prisons for more than a decade without ever proving they've done anything wrong.

When President Obama took office in 2009, he pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. He, along with many other national leaders by that point, recognized that it was a stain on the United States, its "moral standing" in the world and ultimately on U.S. national security. None of that has changed. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently called the continued operation of the Guantanamo prison a "clear breach of international law."

It's hardly surprising that more than four years after the President's broken promise, dozens of detainees, denied even the ability to see their families in more than a decade, would simply stop eating. Most don't even know if they've been cleared for release or slated for indefinite detention. As Musa'ab al Madwhani, a 34-year-old detainee from Yemen, said in a sworn statement to a court recently: "either way, I have no reason to believe that I will ever leave this prison alive. It feels like death would be a better fate than living in these conditions." Both his parents have died since he's been at Guantanamo. He wasn't able to see them or even attend their funerals.

The United States government pays about $800,000 per detainee per year to keep these men at Guantanamo Bay. If they'd been charged, tried and convicted in a U.S. federal court, it would only cost about $30,000 to keep them in secure federal lockup. Spending nearly $69 million a year to imprison 86 men cleared for release hardly sounds like sound budgetary policy as the government faces across-the-board budget cuts that are making sharp dents in things like life-saving medical treatments and early childhood education.

There are several important steps President Obama can take now. [Here's a handy Blueprint.] Most importantly, the president can appoint someone in the White House to assume responsibility for getting the prison camp closed. And he can direct Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to issue the certifications or national security waivers Congress required in the last National Defense Authorization Act to allow transfers of detainees from Guantánamo.

The men remaining at Guantanamo describe themselves as being buried alive. President Obama may be hoping his pledge will be buried and forgotten as well. We can't let that happen.