For decades, American politicians have denounced human rights violations in Cuba. With good cause, they've accused the Castro brothers of rounding up political prisoners, torturing them and detaining them for years with no charges filed and no access to a criminal trial.
But, as true as they may be, American politicians can no longer make those charges. Because the worst human rights violator in Cuba today is not the Castro regime – it's us. It's the U.S. government at our prison at the United States Naval Station Guantanamo Bay; first, under George W. Bush, and now, under Barack Obama.
There is simply no way to defend what we as a nation are doing at Guantanamo on what is, under international law, American soil. Consider: Eighty-six prisoners, more than half the 166 inmates still at Gitmo, were found to have no connection to terrorist activity and have been cleared to leave, but are still being held indefinitely. The remaining 80 prisoners have been held in prison for up to 12 years, with no charges filed against them and no opportunity to defend themselves. Making matters even more serious, 130 prisoners have now joined a hunger strike that began in early February and which the Pentagon at first denied was taking place. Twenty-one of them are being force-fed. And the Pentagon just flew in a new team of 40 doctors to Guantanamo to help keep them alive – not so much to prevent their deaths as to save the United States from a monumental embarrassment.
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On top of that, Slate this week published excerpts from a declassified manuscript obtained from one prisoner, "The Guantanamo Memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi," in which Slahi describes being tortured for months by American investigators at Gitmo. Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, the Marine attorney assigned to prosecute him, withdrew from the case when he discovered Slahi had been tortured. Slahi was later cleared of any link to terrorism, but remains in prison.
As the president made clear at his news conference this week, the problems with Gitmo have not escaped his attention: "I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," he said. "It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessons cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed."
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Strong words, indeed. Unfortunately, the president's actions do not match his rhetoric. True, he signed an executive order to shut down Guantanamo by the end of his first year in the White House. Yet, he's also signed defense authorization bills that bar the use of federal funds for transferring prisoners to U.S. soil and place restrictions on their release to a foreign country. And, four years later, Gitmo remains open. True, during his first two years, he reduced the prison population from 242 to 173. Yet, few prisoners have been released since then, and the president seldom mentioned Guantanamo again – until this week.
President Obama blames Republicans in Congress for preventing him from closing Guantanamo. And, to a certain extent, he's right. They did pass a series of measures limiting his ability to transfer prisoners out of the facility. And they did shoot down his plans to establish a new prison and military tribunal in an unused, secure, state prison in Illinois. But Obama can't blame it all on Republicans. He is the president. And he has executive options on Guantanamo he has so far, for whatever reason, failed to use.
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Carlos Warner, an attorney with the Federal Public Defender of the Northern District of Ohio, who represents 11 Guantanamo prisoners, points out that the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which Obama signed, also allows the president to transfer individuals if it's in the national security interest of the United States, which he clearly reaffirmed this week. Or Obama could just transfer or release prisoners from Gitmo – and let Republicans sue him.
After all, Obama himself said at Tuesday's news conference: "The notion that we're going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man's land in perpetuity … who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop." He's right. It does need to stop. And Obama needs to stop blaming Republicans and start using the powers of the presidency to shut down Guantanamo and get rid of this national disgrace.