For the first time since President Barack Obama was re-elected, administration officials this week formally answered questions about human rights violations at the Guantanamo Bay detention center for suspected terrorists, but they avoided offering any timeframe for closing the facility.
Speaking Tuesday before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a body of the Organization of American States, Michael Williams, a senior adviser for Guantanamo policy in the office of the legal adviser of the State Department, said the administration remains committed to transferring to other countries detainees at Guantanamo who’ve been cleared for release.
But he failed to answer a direct question by IACHR Commissioner Tracy Robinson, of Jamaica, about whether the administration had any specific plans to close the camps. Instead, Williams reverted to his notes about the administration’s efforts to transfer detainees.
He also said the administration has no plans in the “foreseeable future” to lift a moratorium on transfers to their home country of Yemenis cleared for release. The moratorium was put in place after the failed "underwear" bomb attempt on Dec. 25, 2009, that was organized by the Yemen-based branch of al Qaida.
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The failure to address a date for closing the detention center, which has been in operation for more than 11 years, is an indication of how Congress has stymied what had been Obama’s first executive action when he entered office in 2009. At that time, Obama gave the Defense Department one year to close the facility and transfer remaining detainees either to other countries or to the United States for trial.
Since then, however, Congress has prohibited bringing detainees to the United States and has required Obama to notify Congress in advance of transfers to other countries.
The center currently holds 166 men, 86 of whom have been cleared for release. Another 46 have been classified as too dangerous to be released. The remainder are either awaiting trial before a military commission on terrorism-related charges or are under investigation.
Critics of the detention center also testified at the hearing. They, too, zeroed in on the Obama administration’s inability to plan for the closure of the prison.
“The grim reality of Guantanamo today . . . is that death or a conviction for a supposed war crime by the military commission are surer ways out of Guantanamo than the U.S. government’s own processes of clearing people for release,” said Ramzi Kassem, an associate professor at City University of New York School of Law and an attorney for some Guantanamo detainees. He noted that 50 of the 95 Yemenis held at Guantanamo have been cleared for release but have no place to go because of the moratorium on sending Yemenis home.
“If the U.S. government was serious about closing Guantanamo, one would think that the U.S. government would have had a plan to deal with this massive lot of Yemenis at Guantanamo,” he said.
Kristine Huskey, director of the anti-torture program for the Physicians for Human Rights, said the indefinite nature of detention at Guantanamo aggravated the physical abuses some detainees allege they suffered at the hands of their American captors.
“There is no dispute that many were subject to torture and abuse while at Guantanamo,” she said. “Thus, the psychological symptoms of indefinite detention, such as depression, anxiety and PTSD cannot be treated while at the prison.”
Williams responded, however, that “psychological services and care specific to a detainee’s age group” were available to detainees. He said that the detention center’s clinic includes one medical staffer for every two detainees and that there is one physician for every 45 detainees.
Huskey argued, however, that “acceptable” care requires “a trusting therapeutic relationship between an individual and his therapist, and there’s no evidence of any such relationships at Guantanamo.”
Four other U.S. officials were present but did not speak: Lawrence Gumbiner, the deputy U.S. representative to the OAS; Tess Bridgeman, an attorney adviser to the State Department; Tara Jones from the Department of Defense; and Natalya Scimeca, also an attorney adviser to the State Department.