(CN) – Sparing four men from indefinite detention under his successor, now-former President Barack Obama nonetheless failed to fulfill the promise from the first day of his tenure to close Guantanamo Bay’s prison before Donald Trump assumed power on Friday.
Obama began his two-term tenure with an executive order vowing to close the prisons at the U.S. military base in Cuba, noting that the prison camps harmed the nation’s moral authority and served as a recruitment tool for extremists.
Saddled by congressional obstructionism – and some say, his own lack of action – Obama managed to dramatically reduce the prisons’ population, but he could not follow through with his plans to close them.
On Thursday, Obama’s Department of Defense released four men, leaving 41 captives in the prisons once populated by 780 men and boys.
The White House that same day released a report on Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo, accompanied by a letter from the president to the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro tempore of the Senate.
“There is simply no justification beyond politics for the Congress’ insistence on keeping the facility open,” Obama wrote. “Members of Congress who obstruct efforts to close the facility, given the stakes involved for our security, have abdicated their responsibility to the American people. They have placed politics above the ongoing costs to taxpayers, our relationships with our allies, and the threat posed to U.S. national security by leaving open a facility that governments around the world condemn and which hinders rather than helps our fight against terrorism.”
The four men Obama released Thursday included Russian national Ravil Mingazov, Afghan citizen Haji Wali Muhammed and Yassim Qasim Mohammed Ismail Qasim, a Yemeni who will move into the custody of the United Arab Emirates. Jabran Said Wazar al Qahtani has been repatriated to Saudi Arabia.
Guantanamo still holds 31 men who have never been charged with any crime. Five of those men have been approved for transfer, including three cleared by Obama’s Guantanamo task force in 2009.
Despite the fact that every military and law-enforcement agency has found their continued incarceration unnecessary, the prospects of these men obtaining freedom appear unlikely in a Trump administration.
Trump has made clear that he wants to halt all transfers out of Guantanamo Bay and to fill the military base up with new prisoners.
Before taking the oath of office on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible on Friday, Trump remarked on the campaign trail he thought it would be “fine” to lock up U.S. citizens there, a power he may now have under a recent D.C. Circuit decision.
Obama’s Jan. 19 letter called for Congress to keep on task and close Guantanamo.
“There remains bipartisan support for closing Guantanamo and we can do so in a responsible and secure way that also saves the American taxpayer money,” the president said. “Guantanamo is contrary to our values and undermines our standing in the world, and it is long past time to end this chapter in our history.”
Wells Dixon, an attorney from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said that Obama bore “personal responsibility” for leaving Trump with populated prisons in Cuba.
“Let’s make it perfectly clear: Congress did not prevent Obama from closing Guantanamo,” he said in a phone interview.
Obama gave a far different impression during his farewell address, bemoaning that what once had been a bipartisan consensus of the need to close the prisons “suddenly became a partisan issue.”
As Obama blamed Republican obstruction for that failure, his Justice Department fought against the release of two detainees his own administration approved for transfer. The men had brought separate habeas actions to ensure their release, legal efforts that the Obama administration opposed.
One of those men had been Dixon’s client: Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian.
“President Obama continued to fight through his last day in office to keep two detainees in Guantanamo who had been approved for transfer by all of the relevant agencies in his administration,” Dixon said. “He wanted to transfer them, but fought not to transfer them. It makes no sense, but is a perfect illustration of why he failed to close this prison, and why he bears personal responsibility for that failure.”
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer rejected Barhoumi’s application on Wednesday.
The other man, Moroccan national Abdullatif Nasser, saw his application rejected on Thursday, the day of Obama’s farewell speech.