Ending America’s 'legal black hole' in Cuba

The release of six prisoners to Uruguay marks another step in the long process of closing Guantanamo Bay

On Sunday the US Pentagon issued a statement saying six prisoners held for more than 12 years, but never charged were sent to Uruguay for resettlement as refugees. The statement identified their nationalities as four Syrian, a Tunisian and a Palestinian. They were cleared for release, in 2010, if the country could meet the security conditions. However, they have remained in Guantanamo Bay because they come from countries with “troubled security conditions

José Mujica, President of Uruguay, said he was taking the prisoners for reasons of human rights. On Friday he said he was offering hospitality to “human beings who have suffered a terrible kidnapping in Guantanamo Bay”. No doubt his own experience as a detainee played a role in his decision. For 15 years he was subject to harsh prison conditions during the period of military rule in Uruguay from in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Pentagon’s memo said the “US is grateful to the Government of Uruguay for its willingness to support ongoing US efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities.” Uruguay is the first country in South America to accept detainees from the US base in Cuba. In Latin America, El Salvador is the only other country to have taken any, accepting two in 2012.

This is the largest single group of inmates to depart the Guantanamo since 2009 and marks a success in President Barack Obama’s plans to close the controversial detention centre. As Cliff Sloan, from the State Department, notes “this transfer is a major milestone in our efforts to close the facility”. In his state of Union address in January 2014, Obama said: “With the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfer and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military actions, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world.”

Despite Obama’s hopes the process of closing down the controversial centre has been slow. Although, the number of inmates in Guantanamo Bay is at 136 – the lowest it has been since the early months of its opening – the hardest is yet to come. The first problem is that 69 of the remaining inmates face charges before military commission or are deemed untriable but too dangerous to release. The second problem is that the other 67 might be cleared and waiting to go but finding a place to put them is very difficult.

Obama hopes Congress will revoke the laws that bar the transfer of detainees into the US for any reason, including trial, and places restrictions on sending them abroad. It would be far cheaper for taxpayers to house the inmates on domestic soil and it would make closing down the “legal black hole” in Cuba much easier. However, Republican law makers remain hostile; arguing housing wartime prisoners on domestic soil would increase risks of terrorist attacks inside the US.

Given this opposition it is easy to understand why other countries are unwilling to take them. More than 50 countries have and several other South American countries – including Brazil, Chile and Columbia – have been motivated to enter talks after the actions of Uruguay. But finding people to house these men that the US won’t house within its own borders for fear of terrorist attacks is no easy task. In fact, Mujica went against 58% of Uruguayans who said in a poll in October that were opposed to bringing in the prisoners.

Meanwhile, Guantanamo Bay continues to cast a dark shadow on the US’s claims to upload Human Rights, democracy and the rule of law. Its name has become synonymous with an administration that ignored international law, engaged in torture and did legal backflips in an attempt to justify its illegal actions. This has not spared Obama, for example the current transfer included a Syrian man who has been on a prolonged hunger strike to protest his indefinite detention without trial, and who was engaged in a lawsuit challenging the military procedures for force-feeding him. These procedures included: strapping detainees into a restraint chair and inserting tubes into their noses, through which liquid nutritional supplements is poured. In October, a Federal District Court Judge rules that the military must make public videotapes of his treatment. However, Obama appealed order saying it could inflame attacks against American troops abroad. It seems no administration can escape being tainted by the practices of this “lawless human warehouse”.

Thus, this recent move of inmates marks an important step forward on a long way to closing the infamous Guantanamo Bay.