No we can’t: Obama’s Guantanamo

May 21, 2009

Cori Crider

- Cori Crider represents 30 Guantánamo prisoners as an attorney with legal charity Reprieve. The opinions expressed are her own. -

You would be hard-pressed to find a kid more thrilled on Barack Obama’s first day in office than Mohammed el Gharani. On January 21, had you been standing at the right corner of Guantanamo Bay, you could have heard him whoop for joy when the U.S. President made history—so we thought—by closing the prison where el Gharani grew up.

It is four months since that decision. The president gave a speech, “clarifying” his plans for Guantanamo on Thursday. But I fear we will all look back on May 21, 2009, as the day real history was made—The Day President Obama Un-Closed Guantanamo.

In many ways the die seems already cast. The President revived the military commissions last week, a move that risks stretching the prison’s life out for months. Just two prisoners have left Guantanamo since January. One, Binyam Mohamed, had humiliated the U.S. and the UK over his torture; the other, Lakhdar Boumediene, had been ordered released by a federal judge.

It is unclear what the administration is waiting for in Mohammed el Gharani’s case. He was found innocent in court, just like Boumediene, and he has a country to go to. He could climb on a plane to Chad tomorrow, were the administration simply to wake up and do what it has been ordered to do.

In this, el Gharani is luckier than many—namely, Guantanamo’s sixty refugees, who require the U.S. or a goodwilled third country to save them from torture at home. For these men, the administration’s dithering spells disaster. For while the government frittered away the global goodwill that would have helped them house refugees in January, the right regrouped.

Now, talking heads and demagogues have found a new target in Gitmo for scaremongering— a group of innocent Muslim refugees from China called the Uighurs. After rumors swirled that a couple of Uighurs might be released into the U.S., members of the right published libellous statements saying they were tied to al Qaeda. (Even the Bush administration conceded the Uighurs were not the enemy.)

Republicans in Congress have vowed to fight “putting terrorists in American towns” to the bitter end. On the heels of this panic, even the Democrats yanked from a bill funding to close Guantanamo. Yet nearly every country in Europe has made clear: if the US takes no refugees, Europe will take no refugees.

Up to now, the Obama administration has kept silent before this storm of falsehoods, though it well knows it could doom the closure of Guantanamo. We know of no other options the US has pursued for the refugees, aside from Europe and the US. Rumors of Middle Eastern havens have not, apparently, been pursued. Those options closed by inaction, what is left? Filling cells in Bagram, perhaps, or worse still, returning men to Tunisia, China, or Uzbekistan. These no longer seem beyond possibility.

The xenophobia we have seen on the U.S. airwaves and on the Hill this week reflect the worst of America. El Gharani knows a lot about such racism; as a black boy in Medina, local schools shut him out; and as a teen in Guantanamo, he bore the brunt of abuse because he was both dark-skinned and Muslim.

We at Reprieve have watched Mohammed el Gharani grow up in prison. It is high time he left. And while it is not too late for President Obama to let him go, and take a strong stand on these issues, he has lost precious time. Today we heard moral equivocation from the lips of the very man who lambasted Guantanamo repeatedly on the campaign trail.

*This post was updated after the speech President Obama made on Thursday.

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