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May 15th, 2013
Freethought San Marcos: Guantánamo:The nation’s and Obama’s shame

Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS

 

There should be no question that George W. Bush is the first to charge for the shame of Guantánamo.  But now President Obama, the Congress, and the nation share that shame.  Just as the nation bought the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice-Powell lies that took us to war in Iraq, so the nation bought their claims that every person imprisoned at Guantánamo was the worst of the worst.  We now know that was a lie, too.

Of the 166 men now being held at Guantánamo, 86 have been cleared of wrong-doing.  There is no reason to hold them except for Congressional action to make their releases difficult and the recalcitrance of a president whose moral convictions have evaporated like steam from boiling water.

No cases illustrate the shame and moral bankruptcy of US actions better than the cases of Shakir Aamer and Sami al-Hajj.  Aamer was a humanitarian worker, born in Saudi Arabia, educated in the United States, and a resident of Britain, along with his British family.  He was taken into custody by American agents who bought him from people who were responding to American-distributed leaflets that offered bounties for any foreigner that Pakistanis or Afghans turned over.  Aamer was sold to the Americans.

He had been living in Afghanistan with his young family, building girls’ schools and digging wells as a charity worker. He was then tortured in prisons in Kandahar and Bagram before being shipped to Guantánamo, where he has been imprisoned for over eleven years, though both the Americans and the British acknowledge that he has done nothing wrong and the British government wants him repatriated.  But neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have made that happen.

Aamer is one of the over 130 Guantánamo prisoners now on a hunger strike.  His back has been injured by his being repeatedly thrown to the ground in a process known as “earthing,” extremely rough treatment, administered regularly to the prisoners along with other torture.  He has been cruelly force fed.  In a letter to his wife, he wrote:

“I am dying here every day, mentally and physically. This is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of the ocean for years. Rather than humiliate myself, having to beg for water, I would rather hurry up the process that is going to happen anyway. I would like to die quietly, by myself. I was once 250 pounds. I dropped to 150 pounds in the first hunger strike. I want to make it easy on everyone. I want no feeding, no forced tubes, no ‘help’, no ‘intensive assisted feeding’. This is my legal right. The British government refuses to help me. What is the point of my wife being British? I thought Britain stood for justice, but they abandoned us, people who have lived in Britain for years, and who have British wives and children. I hold the British government responsible for my death, as I do the Americans.”

Sami al-Hajj, a Sudanese citizen, was the only journalist held at Guantánamo.  In 2001, while working as a cameraman for the Al Jazeera news network on his way to work for the network in Afghanistan, he was arrested by the Pakistani army and turned over to the Americans, and then shipped to Guantánamo. He was imprisoned there for more than six years without any charges of wrong-doing.

In early 2007, al-Hajj began a hunger strike that lasted 438 days until his release in May 2008.  He described the procedure used to force feed.  Guantánamo medical staff intentionally use a too-large tube, which is threaded through the nose, down the esophagus and into the stomach.  The size of the tube makes the process more painful than it would otherwise be, though it is unpleasant even when it is done properly as a voluntary medical treatment.

When the “feeding” is completed, al-Hajj says that the tubing is jerked out of the nose, another unnecessarily painful procedure and one that does not follow normal medical protocols for tube feeding.  Often, the tubing, which is then used on the next prisoner without sanitizing or even cleaning, is contaminated with blood.  Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, an attorney for one of the hunger protesters, describes the force-feeding process this way: “The tube makes his eyes water excessively and blood begins to trickle from the nose. Once the tube passes his throat the gag reflex kicks in. Warm liquid is poured into the body for 45 minutes to two hours. He feels like his body is going to convulse and often vomits.”

Now that he is free from Guantánamo, al-Hajj is working again for Al Jazeera, now as a journalist in charge of their human rights division.  Based on what Guantánamo officials have told him, he believes the purpose of this mistreatment is to break the hunger strike.  As law professor Marjorie Cohn has written, “the United Nations Human Rights Council concluded that force-feeding amounts to torture. The American Medical Association says that force-feeding violates medical ethics.”  Cohn reports that those “who are refusing food have been stripped of all possessions, including a sleeping mat and soap, and are made to sleep on concrete floors in freezing solitary cells.”  Asa Hutchison, a former Republican congressman and member of The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, has joined in a report that concluded the treatment and indefinite detention of the Guantanamo detainees is “abhorrent and intolerable.”  Yet President Obama has ordered it to continue.

When I read recently of the woman in Cleveland who had been held captive for over ten years, I couldn’t help thinking of al-Hajj and the remaining innocent Guantánamo prisoners.  A forensic psychologist expert in such matters described the ordeal of long-term kidnappings.  “These are some of the most catastrophic kinds of experiences a human being can be subjected to.”  He described the people who engage in such kidnappings as having “longstanding fantasies of capturing, controlling, abusing and dominating” their victims.  He said, “Total control over another human being is what stimulates them.”

Nothing could describe the motivation of the architects and operators of Guantánamo better than these words.  Guantánamo was set up to afford total control of prisoners held there.  The stories of those who are innocent (as well as those who did fight for al Queda) make clear that their experiences at Guantánamo have been catastrophic psychologically, emotionally, and physically.  Among those who want to keep Guantánamo intact are a large majority of the Congress, which passed the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the President signed.  The NDAA in part is intended to hinder the release of innocents we have incarcerated for over a decade.

Laura Pitter, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, has explained congressional efforts to keep Obama from closing Guantánamo and described a way for the President to overcome those roadblocks:

“In 2011 and again in 2012, Congress enacted some restrictions on the transfer of detainees from the facility, but those restrictions are not insurmountable. They require receiving countries to take certain steps to ensure that those being transferred do not engage in terrorist activity and that the secretary of defense certify such steps have taken place. If, however, the secretary of defense cannot, for one reason or another, certify those steps have been taken, he can waive the certification requirement in lieu of ‘alternative actions’ — a term which has no clear legal or procedural definition. The only guidelines are that they ‘substantially mitigate’ the risk that the detainee being transferred may engage in terrorism. Clearly then, the administration’s ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo exists now, even with congressional restrictions. And with Obama again reiterating that keeping Guantanamo open harms U.S. security, the certification — and even more so the waiver — process seems to offer a clear path forward to emptying the facility of more than half its prisoners, if not closing it down.”

Recently, President Barack Obama said that he’d do more to make good on his failed first-term campaign promise to close Guantánamo.  “Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”

The President says the right things, but he doesn’t seem to have the political will to release those wrongly imprisoned in Guantánamo.  The American people must let him know that the incarceration of human beings under these conditions is a denial of the values stated in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, of the human rights recognized by the Magna Carta 800 years ago, and of international treaties in which we are participants.  Imprisoning these men is a repudiation of the foundations of this republic, violates our laws, and turns us all into monsters.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos


LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.

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