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As we pause to remember the 3,000 people who died in the dreadful attacks of September 11 2001, it is also important to remember that, in terms of the Bush administration’s response, the bitter legacy of that day remains a deep stain on America’s moral standing.
In order to pursue a “war” against a group of terrorist criminals, the administration flouted the US Constitution and the bill of rights, dismissed the Geneva conventions, endorsed imprisonment without charge or trial, created a system of show trials for terror suspects out of thin air, granted themselves the right to spy on American citizens with impunity, and invaded a sovereign country without justification.
Although it is reassuring that both presidential candidates have pledged to close Guantánamo, and Barack Obama has signalled that he will act to withdraw US forces from Iraq, neither Obama nor John McCain has yet spelled out in detail how Guantánamo will be closed.
In addition, there has been no talk of what lies behind the notorious offshore prison in Cuba: a network of unaccountable prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the hundreds of other prisoners, subjected to “extraordinary rendition”, who are languishing in jails in third countries or in secret facilities run by or overseen by the CIA.
Decisive leadership is now required to correct these mistakes, and to revive the United States as a country founded on the rule of law.
Some of this can be accomplished with a few pieces of crucial legislation – upholding the absolute ban on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, prohibiting the use of “extraordinary rendition”, holding prisoners seized in wartime in accordance with the Geneva conventions, and bringing criminals to justice within the US court system.
Other problems, however, require painstaking attention to the details, as my colleagues at Reprieve, the legal action charity, understand only too well. Reprieve’s lawyers represent 31 of the 263 prisoners still held in Guantánamo. One of these men, British resident Binyam Mohamed, is facing a trial by military commission at Guantánamo (a system condemned by Lord Steyn as a “kangaroo court”).
Mohamed is a victim of rendition and torture, and his lawyers are currently attempting, through the high court, to persuade the British government to release potentially exculpatory evidence in its possession relating to his case. Their reasons are simple: without this information, they will be unable to prepare an adequate defence, as a steady flow of information relating to the trials has demonstrated that they are designed to secure convictions, and to prevent all mention of torture. Until this system is closed down, and the trials transferred to the mainland, Guantánamo will remain as a beacon of injustice.
Nine of Reprieve’s other clients have been cleared for release from Guantánamo, after multiple review boards, because the authorities have concluded that they do not pose a threat to the US, but they remain in Guantánamo either because of treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture, or, in other cases, because they are, literally, stateless.
Examples include: several Italian residents (pdf) of Tunisian origin, whose return to Tunisia would be a human rights disaster; two Saudi residents, born in Saudi Arabia but spurned by the government because their parents are from Chad and Palestine; and Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who has launched a court appeal to prevent his repatriation, because of legitimate fears about his safety. Although Belbacha lived in the UK and had applied for asylum, he was not technically a resident when he took a holiday in Pakistan in 2001 that led to his kidnapping and transportation to Guantánamo.
Until these cases are resolved, and new homes found for these men, Guantánamo will remain open as an affront to US justice, and a corrosive reminder of the grave errors – the lack of screening, the presumption of guilt, and the bounty payments for “al-Qaida and Taliban suspects” – that led to the prison being filled with innocent men and Taliban foot soldiers who had no knowledge of al-Qaida or the 9/11 attacks.
ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (published by Pluto Press). Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org