Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Obama Promises Guantanamo Will Close and Torture Will End ... but When?

by Matt Clarke

During last year’s election campaign, President Obama came out forcefully against torture by U.S. officials and in favor of closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which holds approximately 230 alleged “terrorism” suspects. However, what Obama has done on these issues since taking office is another matter.

Two days after his inauguration, Obama promised to close Guantanamo within a year, even signing an executive order to that effect. Since then, members of his own party as well as political opponents have moved to prevent that from happening.

Last June, Congress stripped $80 million needed to close Guantanamo out of a $106 billion war funding bill. The bill, which was signed by President Obama on June 23, 2009, also allows Guantanamo prisoners to be moved to the U.S. for prosecution but not for permanent detention or release. The latter restrictions were spurred in part because several U.S. cities, including Hardin, Montana, volunteered to house maximum-security prisoners from Guantanamo. [See related article in this issue of PLN]

Most visible among the Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared of “terrorist” activities is a group of 17 Uighurs. Uighurs are a largely Muslim minority ethnic group who primarily reside in western China. The Uighurs were captured in Pakistan by private bounty hunters who, in exchange for large cash rewards, turned them over to U.S.
officials as suspected terrorists. In fact, the Uighurs were refugees from widespread persecution in China. Years of investigation have proven that the Uighurs were not involved with resistance to US forces in the region. Nonetheless, they remain imprisoned at Guantanamo because they cannot be returned to China due to possible mistreatment, nor can they be settled in the U.S. due to the restrictions imposed by Congress.

Beyond the Obama administration’s difficulty in closing Guantanamo is the expansion of another secretive military prison in Afghanistan. Located a few miles north of Kabul, Bagram Air Force Base contains a prison that eclipses Guantanamo in terms of prisoner abuse. Bagram is the only facility named by every prisoner interviewed by the Red Cross in its investigation of abuse at overseas U.S. military prisons. [See: PLN, May 2006, p.14].

Bagram currently holds about 600 prisoners in primitive conditions. However, the facility is scheduled for a $60 million, 1,100-bed expansion with the blessing of the Obama administration. Thus, while reducing the total “war-on-terror” prison beds with the proposed closure of Guantanamo, there will be a net increase due to the 1,110-bed expansion at Bagram.

Also of concern is the Obama administration’s legal stance toward the prisoners incarcerated at Bagram. Four Bagram detainees are fighting in federal court to gain the same access to the U.S. court system that a prior Supreme Court decision applied to prisoners at Guantanamo. As under former President Bush, the Obama administration has resisted giving Bagram detainees any such rights.

On April 2, 2009, the U.S. District Court over the Bagram case refused to dismiss habeas petitions filed by three non-Afghan detainees, holding they could seek relief in U.S. courts. See: Al Maqaleh v. Gates, 604 F.Supp. 205 (D.D.C. 2009). The district court based its decision on the Supreme Court’s prior ruling in a similar case related to Guantanamo prisoners. See: Boumediene v. Bush, 128 S.Ct. 2229 (2008) [PLN, Dec. 2008, p.20].

On the day that Obama promised to close Guantanamo, the judge in Al Maqaleh said the President’s executive order “indicated significant changes in the government’s approach to the detention, and review of detention, of individuals currently held at Guantanamo Bay,” and asked the government to “refine” its legal position since “a different approach could impact the court’s analysis of certain issues central to the resolution” of the Bagram case. The Attorney General’s reply was a terse, one-line statement that it would “adhere to its previously articulated position [under the Bush administration].”

This was a crushing blow to human rights groups – especially considering that U.S. personnel have been convicted of abusing prisoners at Bagram. In fact, a military report documented at least two cases in which Bagram detainees were beaten to death. The Obama administration has since appealed the district court’s ruling in Al Maqaleh, in an effort to close U.S. courthouse doors to Bagram prisoners.

In April 2009, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request related to the detention and treatment of detainees at Bagram. “Bagram prisoners reportedly receive an even less robust and meaningful process for challenging their detention and designation as ‘enemy combatants’ than the process afforded prisoners at [Guantanamo] – a process the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional last year,” stated ACLU staff attorney Melissa Goodman. “There is renewed public concern that Bagram has become, in effect, the new Guantanamo.”

In an August 18, 2009 ABC News report, the White House declined to comment on the ACLU’s FOIA request. “Despite President Obama’s rhetoric regarding the closure of Guantanamo, his administration claims the right to use Bagram to imprison people indefinitely and deny them human rights,” said Tina Monshipour Foster, executive director of the International Justice Network.

On August 24, the New York Times reported that “renditions” of terrorism suspects by U.S. officials to other countries for detention and torture and interrogation, which took place under the Clinton and Bush presidencies, would continue under the Obama administration – only with closer monitoring and oversight. Typically, suspects have been sent to countries with a history of torture. The decision to continue using renditions was made by the Dept. of Justice’s Interrogation and Transfer Policy Task Force.

Further, President Obama has decided to continue the use of military commissions to try “terrorism” suspects, calling them “appropriate” and “legitimate.” The military commission process will be reformed, however, to bring it “in line with the rule of law.”
For example, statements obtained from detainees using cruel, inhuman and degrading interrogation methods will no longer be admissible as evidence.

In late August 2009, seven months after President Obama took office, the U.S. Attorney General appointed John Durham as a special prosecutor to investigate whether CIA officials or contractors had illegally tortured terrorism suspects. It is considered unlikely that the investigation will extend to top-level officials in the Bush administration such as former Vice President Dick Cheney or former Attorney General Albert Gonzales.
President Obama had previously said he was not in favor of prosecuting officials from the previous administration who may have committed crimes, stating he wanted to “look forward, not backwards.”

Meanwhile, Guantanamo prisoners who have been cleared of resistance activity continue to struggle for their release. Two detainees have been accepted by Portugal, and two by Ireland. Three Guantanamo prisoners were sent to Saudi Arabia, and Italy and Germany have indicated they would consider taking some detainees.

In September 2009, three Uighur prisoners accepted an offer to relocate to Palau, a small island nation in the Pacific. They had been held at Guantanamo for years, even after U.S. military officials determined they were not enemy combatants. Previously, four Uighur detainees were accepted by Bermuda.

The deadline for President Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo is January 2010. “I don’t have a crystal ball that I can say with certainty [that will happen],” stated John Brennan, the Obama administration’s senior counterterrorism advisor. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was more optimistic. “It’s our full intention to close down Guantanamo Bay per the president’s direction. We’re doing everything possible to ensure that we are able to meet that directive and meet that deadline,” he said.

But even if Guantanamo closes as scheduled, what is the advantage when hundreds of other prisoners are housed at Bagram and the Obama administration continues Bush-era policies of renditions, military commissions, indefinite detention, and denying legal protections to detainees in overseas U.S. military prisons? For the victims of imprisonment without trial or end, of renditions and torture the only change they can believe in is that of a new presidential administration carrying out the policies and practices of predecessors. Readers can note that date, not a single prisoner has been released from Guantanamo due to court action.

Sources:,, ABC News, New York Times,, Miami Herald, Washington Post

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login