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Guantanamo still struggling with status

Prison's status remains a conundrum both for the detainees' sense of justice and for legal and moral authority of US.
Last modified: 8 May 2013 08:21
The George W Bush administration first turned Guantanamo into a makeshift wartime prison after 9/11 attacks [EPA]

The past several weeks have not been good for the Obama administration and the US military - thanks to a number of issues that have cropped up at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

They are all coincidental, but they all show problems with the policy of holding so-called "enemy combatants" picked up in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries.

First, the hunger strike, in which most of the 166 men still held at Guantanamo have taken part since early February.

Through their lawyers, the men say they are protesting against their indefinite detention, with no hope of ever going to court to clear their names.

For a sizable number of Yemeni citizens held there, the frustration is deeper, because at one point, the government decided they were no longer security threats, if ever they had been, and said they could be released.

But then the Arab Spring came to Yemen, and the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was turned out of office. The Obama administration decided the political chaos was too much, and put a hold on these transfers. That was in 2011.

And there are the complaints of rough treatments by a new crop of guards, the mishandling of Qurans, the tales of being forced-fed with tubes that are too big despite what medical and legal experts say is the men's right to protest by not eating.

Military leaders deny the rough treatment and forced-feeding reports as part of the detainees' efforts to get public attention.

They also defend housing the men in solitary cells to keep them from covering up security cameras and windows in the communal living blocks.

The officials do admit they saw the detainees' frustration build when Obama didn't mention Guantanamo in either his inaugural address or his State of the Union speech.

And then there are the military commissions, a process which despite the chief prosecutor's best efforts, still garners suspicion in some quarters.

Both the cases of Nashiri and the alleged 9/11 plotters are on hold while the judge tries to deal with the fallout from a computer breach that might have compromised secret lawyer-defendant communications.

There is also at least one case in civilian courts that could affect the idea of charging these defendants with "conspiracy", a crime that doesn't exist in the international law of war.

The biggest challenge for the military is convincing the courts and the public that some acts require a special court and legal system. It has a long way to go.

In a recent press conference, Obama acknowledged the detainees' frustration, and he reiterated his promise to close Guantanamo, despite fierce political opposition.

But Obama also said he couldn't let the detainees kill themselves by starving. So, defence lawyers say, the forced feeding continues, and the detainees' desperation grows.

The George W Bush administration first turned Guantanamo into a makeshift wartime prison in 2002, after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The concrete blocks soon followed, and today, Camps Five and Six look just like the prisons or county jails found in the US.

But with the latest request for money to rehabilitate and upgrade the facilities, the message is clear: the Obama administration won't be closing them anytime soon, if only because the political climate in Washington won't let it do so without a fight.

And since Washington has already said it must hold the men in humane conditions, it can't not improve the facilities.

It's a conundrum that for the detainees' sense of justice, and for the US's legal and moral authority, demands some resolution sooner rather than later.