Panel Skeptical of Prospects for Gitmo Closure

     MANHATTAN (CN) – With a hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay reaching its fourth month and reportedly involving more than 100 detainees, a prominent lawyer, a journalist and a human rights doctor met at Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security to ask when the prison will close.
     President Barack Obama pledged to close the U.S. Naval Base prison on the second day of his presidency, reiterated that desire during his campaign for a second term and deplored that it was still running at a press conference last month.
     “I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary,” Obama told reporters on April 30. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens international cooperation with our allies. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”
     Missing from the national dialogue is the sense that “there are human beings at Guantanamo,” Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security, noted in her introduction to the topic.
     Her first speaker, attorney David Remes, gave an impassioned and personal account of his encounters with his detainee clients.
     Describing his first tour of the prison as “an overwhelming experience, interesting, appalling and just mind-blowing,” he said that he “just slept for two days straight” from emotional exhaustion when he returned.
     Remes said his clients initially thought he and his co-counsel were interrogators.
     “They don’t let reporters talk to detainees,” he explained. “They don’t let politicians talk to detainees. It’s hard to get independent medical experts to talk to detainees.”
     Having been “irrevocably poisoned” by the Bush administration’s insistence that the detainees represented “the worst of the worst,” the American public had forgotten that the detainees had families and jobs, Remes said.
     Speaking of his Yemeni clients from 2005, he said one was an aide worker stationed in Karachi assisting a charity considered to be a terrorist organization, and another hoped to emigrate to the West to find economic opportunity and religious tolerance.
     The Guantanamo Review Task Force, commissioned by President Obama on his second day in office, cleared 86 of 166 detainees for transfer.
     Although Obama blamed the status quo at Guantanamo on Congress, Remes noted that Obama personally halted the transfer of Yemeni detainees by executive order in January 2010. The president justified the decision on the recently thwarted Christmas Day attack on a U.S. airliner by the so-called “underwear bomber.”
     Remes slammed Obama for “lack of leadership and political courage,” and faulted him for “set[ting] up a very arduous and bureaucratic process” for releasing detainees.
     “Obama himself is more responsible for the fact that Guantanamo is still open than anyone else,” Remes said.
     To his credit, Obama improved living conditions at the prison by sending Navy Admiral Patrick Walsh to assess whether the prison complied with the Geneva Conventions, Remes added.
     Remes said that Walsh’s report concluded the prison was “hunky dory” in terms of international law, but the admiral also produced a list of suggestions that led to long-term change.
     He said the current hunger strike began in February, when the prison resumed inspections of the detainees’ Qurans, a development Remes blamed on the “hard-ass” posturing of Army Col. John Bogdan, who took over as the prison’s commander in June 2012.
     “Searching the Quran is a provocation,” Remes said. “It was a conscious provocation. It was a deliberate provocation, and this is how the detainees are responding.”
     Dr. Gerald Thompson, a professor emeritus at Columbia and former member of the Constitution Project Task Force on Detainee Treatment, called the force-feeding of prisoners “cruel, inhuman and degrading.”
     Though Obama justified the measure as necessary to keep the prisoners from dying, Thompson said the practice is prohibited in U.S. medical literature and opposed by the World Medical Association.
     Restraining a prisoner for force-feeding could even qualify as “torture,” Thompson said, depending on how it is conducted.
     He added that key details about the treatment of the reported 22 hunger strikers being force-fed are unknown.
     “The act of restraint is assaultive,” he said. “This is what force-feeding usually means.”
     In a history lesson, he said that the first force-feeding occurred when British Suffragettes conducted a hunger strike for women’s right to vote.
     “Hunger strikes tend to be effective,” he said. “Hunger strikers get something.”
     Miami Herald correspondent Carol Rosenberg, who received the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights’ 2011 Domestic Reporting Prize for her Guantanamo coverage, pointed out that the first strike at the military prison achieved its goal.
     The earlier strike, she said, started when a National Guardsman ordered a detainee not to use his towel as a turban during prayers. It ended when the prison changed its policy to allow towels to be worn as turbans sp long as the detainees allowed them to be inspected, she said.
     She said the official who made that decision got hate mail accusing him of coddling the prisoners, but the gesture ended the strike.
     While Remes stated that stopping inspection of the Qurans might end the strike, Rosenberg suggested that the issue was more fundamental.
     “The major difference between then and now was in 2005, prisoners were leaving,” she said.

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