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Obama Transfers 4 From Guantánamo, Leaving 41 There as Term Ends

The Obama administration's long and fitful effort to wind down the Guantánamo Bay wartime prison came to a close on Thursday with an announcement that it had transferred four more men out of the detention complex. Their departures are expected to be the last before President Obama leaves office on Friday.

The transfer of the four detainees means that President-elect Donald J. Trump, who has called for an end to such transfers, will inherit the fates of 41 men there, 31 of whom are being held without charges or trial. Eight years ago, when Mr. Obama took office and delivered an ill-fated vow to shutter the wartime prison he had inherited from the Bush administration, there were 242 detainees.

In a letter to congressional leaders the White House sent on Thursday afternoon, Mr. Obama reiterated his arguments for closing the prison – that it is expensive and a damaging symbol that fuels anti-Americanism – and complained again that restrictions imposed by Congress that prevented him from carrying out his plan to close it "make no sense."

"As president, I have tried to close Guantánamo," Mr. Obama said. "When I inherited this challenge, it was widely recognized that the facility – which many around the world continue to condemn – needed to close. Unfortunately, what had previously been bipartisan support for closure suddenly became a partisan issue. Despite those politics, we have made progress."

The slightly bitter tone to Mr. Obama's words underscored that his failure – amid stiff political headwinds – to fulfill his promise to close the prison appeared destined to be remembered as part of his national security and human rights legacy.

"While many detainees have at last been transferred, we are gravely disappointed by President Obama's failure to shutter Guantánamo," said Margaret Huang, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, in a statement. "This isn't just a broken promise, it is a serious legal and moral failure that leaves us all at risk of further human rights violations. We are extremely concerned that President-elect Trump will make good on his threat to subject more people to indefinite detention without charge or trial."

Three of the newly transferred men – Yasin Qasem Muhammad Ismail, a Yemeni, Ravil Mingazov, a Russian, and Haji Wali Mohammed, an Afghan – were resettled in the United Arab Emirates. The fourth, Jabran Said Wazar al Qahtani, was repatriated to Saudi Arabia just two months after a parolelike board made up of six agencies had moved him to the transfer list. Each had been held for about 15 years.

The transfers, along with previous batches of detainees sent to Oman and Saudi Arabia earlier this month, were expected. Under a federal law, the secretary of defense must advise Congress of his intent to transfer detainees at least 30 days before doing so. Based on that deadline, The New York Times reported last month that a flurry of 17 to 18 transfers was coming.

The notices last month had included the possibility that one Yemeni man might be sent to Italy or Oman. That man was included in the batch of 10 who were sent to Oman earlier this week, according to an official familiar with the deliberations.

The departures reduce the transfer list – detainees whom six agencies decided to recommend transferring, so long as security conditions could be met in a country willing to accept them – to five. Their fate is now uncertain.

The administration had not notified Congress last month that it intended to transfer any of those five, according to several officials familiar with internal deliberations, in part because several involved various difficulties that complicated efforts to find a place to send them.

For example, one is a stateless ethnic Rohingya person, and efforts to find an appropriate country that was willing to resettle him – and where he was willing to entertain going – proved unsuccessful, the officials said.

Two other men on the transfer list who were left behind were from Algeria and Morocco, both countries that the United States government has in the past deemed appropriate destinations for repatriated detainees.

Those men fought a last-minute court battle asking judges to order the United States government to send them home without waiting for a delay. They argued that the Obama administration's failure to send any notice to Congress about them was merely an administrative delay, but judges on Wednesday and Thursday declined to order their immediate release.

Justice Department filings in those cases showed that the problem for the Moroccan was a delay by his home government in returning a diplomatic note promising to live up to security conditions if it took him back. Morocco provided the note only on Dec. 28, after the deadline to give Congress 30 days notice and still carry out the transfer before the Obama administration leaves office. And so Ashton B. Carter, the secretary of defense, decided to make no determination about whether to approve it, a court filing said.

A separate filing stated that Mr. Carter had decided on Jan. 12 that the Algerian detainee "should not be repatriated at this time based on a variety of substantive factors relevant to petitioner's circumstances, including factors not related to petitioner himself." It offered no further details.

Shayana Kadidal, the lead attorney for Guantánamo cases with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents the Algerian detainee, expressed frustration with the Obama administration for not trying to take advantage of the litigation to get one or both of those detainees out, too. He portrayed the Justice Department's resistance as symptomatic of the outgoing administration's ambivalence that, in his view, led Mr. Obama not to fight congressionally imposed transfer restrictions that blocked him from carrying out his plan to close the prison.

Still, Mr. Kadidal noted that after the administration's push to get most of the detainees on the transfer list out by the time it left office, his center now has only four clients left of the dozens it once had, in addition to coordinating habeas corpus litigation with other volunteer lawyers. The flurry of departures of fellow prisoners or fellow lawyers, he said, made this closing moment "poignant" for those left behind.

"Many of our clients' good friends among the prison population are in Oman, and many of our longtime habeas counsel, people we've fought alongside for a decade-plus, no longer have any clients" at Guantánamo, he said.

[Source: By Charlie Savage, The New York Times, Washington, 19Jan17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 23Jan17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.