On January 22 US president Obama signed his first Executive Order (EO). The order banned torture, directed the CIA to “shut what remains of its network of secret prisons” and ordered “the closing of the Guantanamo detention camp within a year.” Any prisoners remaining after that time will be returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility.
The order fulfilled an election promise Obama made during his 2008 presidential campaign, part of his policy of “re-establishing America’s reputation of a country that upholds human rights”.
While the closure of Guantanamo is to be welcomed by everyone who opposes the “war on terror” and its associated human rights abuses, there is mounting evidence that it goes nowhere near far enough.
It still allows the Obama administration to continue many of Bush’s shocking policies, including rendition and the use of the title “enemy combatant” to get around legal conditions on the treatment of prisoners. The order on interrogations for example only applies to US owned or controlled facilities. Torture could still be used by other security forces in Egypt, Morocco and other countries operating on orders from the US.
Obama officials have also asserted in court that prisoners currently held overseas by US forces in Bagram, Afghanistan, have no constitutional right to challenge their detention in US courts.
More than two months after Obama’s order, conditions for the 240 prisoners in Guantanamo remain the same. Most have not been charged and are stuck in a legal limbo, with no chance of a fair trial.
On February 23, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) published a report titled: “Current conditions of confinement at Guantanamo—still in violation of the law.” The report states: “Most are kept in supermax solitary confinement in Camps 5 and 6 or Camp Echo. Treatment is harshly punitive and includes isolation, sensory and sleep deprivation, brutal assaults, forced tube-feeding of hunger strikers, and environmental manipulation that combined gravely impair physical and psychological health and well-being.”
Lawyers working for the CCR state that despite Obama’s order “…conditions at Guantanamo have not improved. They’re unchanged, outrageous, and illegal. Inmates struggle for their sanity and say conditions are like living in a tomb. The Pentagon and Obama administration deny it and describe isolation as greater ‘privacy’ and ‘single-occupancy cells’. Conditions, however, ‘speak for themselves’.”
Obama’s policy on imprisonment and torture also fails the test in Afghanistan, where his policy is no different to that of Bush. He believes it is a crucial arena in the “war on terror” and on 17 February announced a troop surge of 17,000 soldiers to help put down the growing insurgency.
Bagram Air Base, the notorious US controlled prison established in 2001, is getting a $60 million upgrade—expanding to hold 1100 prisoners (up from 600), which will include prisoners transferred from CIA “black sites”.
Human rights groups and journalists remain barred from areas within Bagram that are notorious for mistreatment, and these areas will only occasionally be visited by the Red Cross.
The Obama administration’s obscure justification is that Bagram is “a special case in a war theatre”.
Obama and the “war on terror”
The US government has admitted to detaining up to 26,000 people without trial in secret prisons, and around 80,000 have been “through the system” since 2001. The closure of Guantanamo is a response to the years of campaigning of anti-war and civil rights activists.
However, the closure does not mean Obama is moving away from the “war on terror” of the Bush years. It is a symbolic act that gets rid of the focal point of anger at US policies of detention and rendition.
But the Obama Administration has so far stayed silent on the fate of thousands of prisoners being held in the secret CIA run prisons in Eastern Europe, Thailand and other countries.
The limitations of Obama’s order on torture have shocked and disappointed many who looked forward to the end of the Bush regime. A national mobilisation in New York on April 4 is calling for cuts in military spending to address the economic crisis. This type of action, mobilising Obama supporters to push for real reforms, is going to be needed if the new administration is going to be held to account.
By Rob Nicholas