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Jan 15 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Obama’s Gitmo

On his second day on the job, President Barack Obama promised to shut down Guantánamo by January 22, 2010. As we near the deadline, the U.S. detention center remains open, and nearly 200 detainees are still being held at the prison, including dozens already cleared for release.

To mark the ninth year of detaining prisoners without charge or trial, human rights activists are protesting in Washington, D.C.

On Monday, January 11, Witness Against Torture and the Center for Constitutional Rights collaborated on a vigil in front of the White House and a briefing at the National Press Club, where two former detainees at Gitmo addressed the audience via phone and video link.

“Nothing’s changed inside the prison,” said Omar Deghayes, a former inmate who now lives in the UK. “People are still being tortured, still being beaten, psychologically harmed.”

Former detainee Lakhdar Boumediene was finally released in May after seven years at Guantánamo, including two and a half years on hunger strike. “I try but I can’t forget,” said Boumediene, who called from his home in France. “When I wash my hand, I see the mark of the shackles.”

Boumediene was the lead plaintiff in the 2008 Supreme Court case, Boumediene v. Bush. The court affirmed that Guantánamo detainees have the right to file writs of habeas corpus in U.S. federal courts.

January 11 was also the start of an eleven-day “Fast for Justice” demanding that Guantánamo close and torture end.

One of the reasons some Witness Against Torture activists have decided to fast is to be in solidarity with hunger strikers in the prison. “This isn’t a well known story, but there are a number of men in Guantánamo who have not eaten of their own volition since 2005, who are on hunger strike,” says Frida Berrigan, a national committee member of the War Resisters League who has been organizing with Witness Against Torture since its inception.

“They are being kept alive by force feeding twice a day. This is their act of resistance, of non-compliance, non-cooperation with their illegal detention,” she says. “So for some of us, this fast is our way of putting ourselves in relationship in some small way with the men who remain on hunger strike in Guantánamo.” Fifty people in the D.C. area are fasting, along with 150 nationwide.

Berrigan says that last year, the group decided to not do direct action because candidate Obama pledged to close the controversial facility.

“We were so excited and happy on January 22, 2009, when President Barack Obama, forty-eight hours after taking the oath of office, signed the executive order, and said very clearly, I’m going to shut down Guantanamo and I’m going to do it within a year,” Berrigan says.

“The hope that we felt and that excitement has been replaced by outrage, indignation, and frustration as we’ve seen the Obama Administration create more problems instead of solving the problem left to him by the Bush Administration,” she adds.

So this year, the group has descended upon Washington, D.C., to do direct action and talk to legislative aides. “Some of us did a silent prisoner walk, a very slow walk, through the Hart Building of the Senate, wearing orange jump suits, with a little banner on the back with the name of a man at Guantánamo who has been cleared for release, but remains at Guantánamo,” says Berrigan.

The foiled Christmas day attack only strengthened Berrigan’s commitment. “We’re facing a more hardened public, a public that is afraid, a public that is awash in hateful rhetoric, for the last three weeks,” she says. “At the same time, the failed terrorist attack proves our point. Where is that young Nigerian man being held? He’s being held in Michigan. He stood before a judge a week ago and pled not guilty. He’s going to have a trial and he will be sentenced if he is found guilty. Our criminal justice system, in this way, works.”

“All of the institutions that are supposed ensure that justice is followed and laws are followed have failed the men at Guantánamo and at Bagram,” says Berrigan. “People are detained throughout the world in the name of security in the War on Terror. So it’s up to us as people to not fail, to do something, to urge these institutions to not fail.”

But not at Guantánamo or at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or at secret prisons elsewhere.

Civil liberties took a back seat to national security threats during the Bush Administration. It’s time for Obama to keep his promises to close Guantánamo and end torture.

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