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April 25, 2013

Guantanamo Hunger Strike a Wake-Up Call for Obama

Ninety-four Guantanamo detainees are now on hunger strike, more than half of the prison’s population, and 17 are being force-fed. As Carol Rosenberg notes, the number of hunger strikers has doubled since prison officials began a lockdown of almost all detainees on April 13.

The hunger strike began as a statement against guards searching detainees’ copies of the Koran. But it has grown into an indictment of the indefinite detention that Guantanamo detainees face. Many detainees have been at the prison for more than a decade, with no prospect for release or transfer, or even trial, in their future. Meanwhile, they have seen President Obama promise to close the prison in the first year of his administration, only to blame his failure to do so on divisive party politics. While blaming Congressional obstruction for blocking plans to close Guantanamo, he has even been reluctant to fight the political battles necessary to make any progress on the issue.

The administration has also been reluctant to use the tools available [to them] to help close Guantanamo.

Even with the restrictions Congress has put on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees, President Obama can send detainees cleared for transfer home or to third countries if the Secretary of Defense issues a waiver demonstrating that measures will be taken to substantially mitigate the risk.  Twenty-seven of the nation’s most respected retired generals and admirals have urged him to use this authority to transfer detainees, but he hasn’t done so.

As Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon told the New York Times, “The administration hasn’t taken any steps toward meeting the requirements of having anybody released … It’s just a political game. They like to point to this as our intransigence, but we have worked with them.” Bill Lietzau, the top Department of Defense official in charge of detainee policy, admitted that “even if the legislative restrictions were removed, I don’t believe the numbers [at Guantanamo] would change radically,” underscoring the point that the administration isn’t trying hard enough to find ways to transfer cleared detainees.

President Obama can also set up Periodic Review Boards to evaluate whether each detainee can be transferred out of Guantanamo. In fact, the administration has promised to do this, missing its own deadline by more than a year at this point.  As Retired Rear Admiral Don Guter said, “The administration promised additional due process for Guantanamo detainees, but these reviews are way behind schedule … By missing even self-imposed deadlines, the administration is reinforcing the notion that it has lost control over Guantanamo policy.”

The Times is reporting that this delay is because of inter-agency disagreements on the review procedures, including how to deal with information obtained by the CIA due to torture.  These disagreements could be resolved fairly quickly if the President would task a senior official in the White House to coordinate the interagency process.  Currently it is unclear who is responsible for this task.

These are among the recommendations that Human Rights First published in a blueprint in December 2012, laying out a plan for President Obama to close Guantanamo.

President Obama must show that he is actually committed to closing Guantanamo by taking concrete steps to do so. And he must do so now.