Attention has once again been drawn to the Guantanamo Bay detention center as inmates stage a mass hunger strike to protest their captivity, which has sparked further controversy as guards have taken up the practice of force-feeding prisoners through tubes down their throats. Daily Nexus reporter Gregory Ferguson spoke with UCSB political science lecturer Ted Anagnoson to get his perspective on the issue for this week’s Current Events 101.
The latest hunger strike is just the most recent of several similar protests that started in 2005. Approximately 100 of the 166 remaining inmates housed at the historic facility are participating in the current strike. The descriptions of starving prisoners and brutal force-feeding practices have revived an issue that has been dormant for some time. Many prisoners are stuck in a bureaucratic limbo, with some of the 166 having been there for over a decade without being charged with any legal infractions.
The detention center, located at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, has been used since 2002 to detain and interrogate captive enemy combatants connected to the “Global War on Terror.” During George W. Bush’s presidency, the initial impetus for detaining prisoners there was the idea that the facility would be outside of United States’ legal jurisdiction, however the Supreme Court later ruled that inmates were entitled to minimal protections provided through the Geneva Conventions.
The 2006 Military Commissions Act gave the president the authority to designate “unlawful enemy combatants” that would be subject to military tribunals, meaning prisoners would receive fewer civil rights than in a civilian court.
The issue has long been controversial in the United States political sphere — particularly the alleged use of torture within the detention camp, which former inmates insist was used. Anagnoson, who is also a professor emeritus of political science at California State University Los Angeles, said it is known that waterboarding was used on some detainees, either at Guantanamo or other CIA facilities abroad.
However, Anagnoson said the issue of whether waterboarding is actually categorized as an unlawful form of torture comes down to its lawful definition, which he said is interpreted differently by opposing political interests.
“The Bush administration and many conservatives argue that it isn’t and that that kind of extreme pressure is justified when you are going to get information about future terrorist activities,” Anagnoson said. “For others, the effectiveness of extreme measures is very dubious, and they figure that if you torture or pressure somebody enough, they will simply tell you whatever you want to hear.”
The use of Guantanamo Bay facilities has also sparked much criticism abroad, as foreign governments and watchdog groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch consistently condemn Guantanamo. According to Anagnoson, there are concerns that the controversy surrounding the detention center, and the outrage it imparts abroad may exacerbate hostilities and even encourage more people to take up arms.
“I think it’s been an embarrassment over time,” Anagnoson said. “It’s certainly been an embarrassment for the public. I don’t think it bothers other governments as much because many of them have their own people that they keep locked up, but there’s no doubt that this sort of thing for the ‘Greatest Democracy on Earth’ is at least somewhat of an embarrassment.”
President Barack Obama initially entered his presidency with the stated aim of closing the detention camp, a goal that Anagnoson said Obama shared with former opponent John McCain and outgoing President Bush. Nonetheless, although President Obama issued an executive order early in his first term in an attempt to close the center and move the prisoners to facilities within the United States, the idea proved unpopular, Anagnoson said.
“Congress cut off the money for closing down Guantanamo, and then passed some rules — one of them being that you can’t bring the prisoners back to the United States even to try them,” Anagnoson said. “So I think [the Obama Administration] put it on the back burner.”
According to Anagnoson, nobody wanted the inmates moved to their congressional districts or states, so both the House and Senate moved against the proposal. While the intransigence of many Republicans has played a large role in defeating efforts at closure, the defunding of the attempted closure was far from a partisan issue with a 90-6 vote in a Democratic Senate.
Another concern is the viability of terrorism cases in civilian courts, as Anagnoson cited the October 2010 case of Ahmed Ghailani, who was tried in New York for the 1998 bombings in east Africa.
“The evidence on a number of people is so tainted it couldn’t be admitted in civilian court, so you couldn’t try them,” Anagnoson said. “The jury found [Ghailani] guilty of conspiracy to destroy U.S. property and he was given a life sentence but he was acquitted of 284 of the charges.”
Many have stated that civilian courts could not be trusted to prosecute terrorists, according to Anagnoson.
Even for those who are cleared for transfer to their respective countries oftentimes face hesitance of their return, as the governments of their home countries frequently create bureaucratic entanglements that hinder their ability to return. There is also great concern surrounding the return of inmates to nations known to house terrorist groups, such as Yemen — the home country of the majority of remaining inmates.
There have been instances of recidivism, or relapse, among released inmates. Abdallah Saleh al-Amji, for example, was transferred from Guantanamo in 2005 and acquitted of all charges by a Kuwaiti court. In 2008, al-Amji executed a suicide bombing in Mosul, Iraq that killed seven people.
According to Anagnoson, the debate surrounding Guantanamo can easily continue over the course of several administrations.