Monday, February 09, 2009

Plus ça change

Torture continues at Guantanamo. Fifty prisoners on hunger strike are being strapped down and force fed. They are also being beaten and abused as they are "extracted" from their cells.

No prisoners have been released, even those, like Binyam Mohamed, against whom charges have been dismissed and who have been cleared for release for months. The only reason why Binyam Mohamed is not on his way back to England now is that the U.K. and U.S. governments want to silence his potential testimony about torture.

In furtherance of that end, the Obama Justice Department has today maintained with no change at all the Bush administration's claim of 'state secrets' privilege to block accountability for rendition to torture in a suit in which Mohamed is the lead plaintiff. ACLU spokespeople are disappointed and shocked. I am only disappointed. And disgusted.

If you know nothing about force feeding and prison hunger strikes, your mental health is no doubt the better for it, but there's a significant gap in your grasp of political history. This article provides some context. This interview with al-Jazeera journalist Sami El-Hajj a few months after his release this past May after more than six years of imprisonment and torture, makes it impossible to find excuses for the new custodian of the torture regime.

Update: 7:30 pm, 10 February - Thanks to the Military Commissions Act, U.S. judges cannot affect the conditions under which Guantanamo prisoners are held. So one has just ruled that she cannot stop the force feedings, leaving it up to the Obama administration. As I said, there are no excuses for the new custodian. Disturbingly, Judge Kessler also said
even if she had authority to consider the case, she would not have stopped the force feeding process because the government’s actions do not violate an established legal standard.

Update 2: 2:15 pm, 15 February - The new administration is either very far from having established control of the prison, or they are affirming that they have the same understanding of "humane" treatment as the Bush regime.

A letter from the ACLU on the issue of force feeding was answered by the Bush holdover in the Defense Department who is still in charge of detainee affairs. Written after the Obama executive orders were issued, it reads in exactly the same way as it would have if Bush and Cheney were still in charge.

Reporting on Guantanamo is sketchy at best, due to the difficulties of access. The Miami Herald's reporting has been consistently the most detailed, but contains no sign that Obama's choice for new commander of the base has taken over nor any indication when he will. Apparently, the visit of the Navy's second-ranking admiral last week was something in the nature of advance work.
I see no sign of any broom being taken to the operation, and am growing less and less optimistic than anything will change for the prisoners as a result of the review now happening.

Update 3: 4:30 pm, 20 February - Finally, something to cheer. Binyam Mohamed may be released to Britain as soon as Monday. White House Counsel Greg Craig was at the prison this week. Privately, a lawyer recently at the prison says that conditions have improved somewhat, though not enough, for prisoners; he's forbidden to go into details.

Another extremely easy-to-accomplish release would be that of the 17 Uighurs, who were just failed by the D.C. Circuit court of appeals. It's solely up to the executive branch, apparently. Call the White House and urge their release (background here). Although VP Biden said in the first week in office that he doesn't expect that any prisoners will be released to the U.S., the reality is that, partly due to threats from China, there is no other country that will accept the Uighurs. There are communities here ready to take them. If we do not accept some men released from Guantanamo, it will be that much harder to expect other countries to do so.

Image: drawing by Lewis Peake based on censored drawings of Sami El-Hajj, originally published by Reprieve and reproduced by Andy Worthington, whose site and book are definitive sources for information on Guantanamo prisoners.

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