By Jake Olzen
On January 11, Witness Against Torture activists pose in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which is covered in a false facade for repairs. (Flickr/Justin Norman)
One might think this would be over by now. Four years ago, President Obama signed an executive order to close the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, yet it remains open. More than half of the men imprisoned have been cleared for release by the Obama administration’s Guantánamo Review Task Force but continue to languish for years after the fact. In the past two and a half years, 13 prisoners have been released and two have died in custody — including the recent and tragic case of Adnan Latif.
Yesterday, over 100 human rights activists — myself included — tied 166 orange ribbons to the White House fence, one for each of the prisoners who remain. The activists also hung a banner that read “Inaugurate Justice: Close Guantánamo.” The unpermitted action followed a coalition-organized protest in which over 300 people marched from the Supreme Court to the White House to mark the 11th anniversary of the prison’s opening. More than 100 Witness Against Torture activists undertook a seven-day, liquids-only fast for the fifth year in a row while orchestrating daily vigils, penning letters to prisoners, leafleting and hosting film screenings and discussions.
As President Obama is poised to begin his second term next week, the prison serves as a visceral reminder of the failure of Congress, the courts and the president to end the detention regime that started under the Bush administration. National security and legal experts have little hope that the prison will close anytime soon, pointing to provisions in the latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). President Obama signed the 2013 NDAA into law on January 3, making it nearly impossible to close the prison due to restrictions on necessary funding.
A small but committed coalition continues to push for an end to torture, indefinite detention and illegal prisons. The campaign to close Guantánamo includes lawyers, human rights advocates, military and defense experts, journalists, former prisoners and families of victims of the 9/11 attacks.
British journalist Andy Worthington, who has spent the past six years telling the stories of the imprisoned men, spoke passionately about the moral failings of Guantánamo remaining open at yesterday’s rally.
“Frankly,” he said, “the prison remains open because it was politically inconvenient for Obama to fulfill his promise as president. The facts at Guantánamo: Over half those remaining have been cleared for release.”
Col. Todd Pierce, defense counsel for Guantánamo detainees, associates indefinite detention with torture. In a conversation with Witness Against Torture, Pierce said, “We should not delude ourselves. With indefinite detention, we’ve created a more sophisticated form of torture.”
Witness Against Torture activists hold signs as part of January 11 actions in Washington, D.C. (Flickr/Justin Norman)
The grim prospects of the prison ever closing seem to be shaking the resolve of even the most committed activists. Many who participated in the actions told me that they wondered what good it does to continue showing up year after year if Guantánamo will remain open no matter what. But still they came.
One man from New Jersey, Frank McCann, said that he experiences a profound sense of frustration, but that he has been changed for the better. Others echoed McCann’s feelings.
“We are doing the best we can with the tools we have,” said Mike May from Staten Island, “all the while maintaining our principles — something our government cannot do.”
In bustling downtown Washington, D.C., thousands of people passed activists standing in the costume that has come to be associated with Guantánamo and the war on terror: an orange-jumpsuited prisoner with a black hood. People noticed, both on the streets and in the news. International coverage of the protests, in particular, serves an important function by helping to send a message of unity with people aversely affected by U.S. policies abroad, particularly in the Muslim world.
Luke Nephew, a poet and activist with Witness Against Torture, hopes his actions can be seen as a sign around the world that not all Americans support the war on terror.
“Many Muslims I’ve met have been surprised — profoundly grateful — for the Americans who resist Guantánamo and similar prisons and policies around the world,” the Bronx native said. In 2012, Nephew spent two months coordinating “Poetry for Peaceful Co-Existence” workshops in Sudan where, he said, the Muslim youth he worked with were moved most by his anti-torture poem entitled “There’s a Man Under that Hood!”
“There is a spirit of solidarity and connection that comes from these protests,” said Nephew.
Omar Deghayes, a former Guantánamo prisoner who was left blind in one eye due to abuse he suffered during his imprisonment, now works with the U.K.-based organization CagePrisoners. In a letter to American anti-torture activists, Deghayes wrote about his own resolve for justice at Guantánamo: “I was lucky and grateful to be reunited with my family and back to the warmth of my home, to be touched, at last, by the soft cool wind of freedom, but my joy is incomplete and will remain so, until the rest of the unlawfully held detainees share my experience of freedom at last.”
Aside from protests in Washington, D.C., activists in cities across the country also held actions on January 11 to raise awareness of the legal and moral problems of torture and indefinite detention.
In Chicago, for instance, more than 50 activists with the Christian Peacemaker Teams and Occupy Chicago organized a flash mob as they taped photos of detainees on the Federal Building before reading the names of prisoners. They then moved on to a Zero Dark Thirty opening in downtown Chicago, where activists in orange jumpsuits and black hoods handed out fliers. Ironically, as Frida Berrigan noted in her column yesterday, the Guantánamo anniversary was also the same day that the film, which portrays torture as an effective part of the pursuit for Osama bin Laden, opened in theaters nationwide. According to the anti-war organization World Can’t Wait, anti-torture protests were also planned in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Dallas, Seattle and dozens of other cities around the world.
To the crowd gathered at the Supreme Court, a lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which coordinates legal counsel for the men in Guantánamo, shared a message of thanks from one of her imprisoned clients. For the moment, at least, it felt like that simple gesture of recognition between activists and prisoners could be enough for us to continue holding out hope a little while longer that the winds may yet change and blow toward justice.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” said D.C.-based activist Helen Schietinger, to a small circle of fellow protesters just before they parted ways. “And if Guantánamo doesn’t go away, neither will we.”