Washington (AFP) – A new U.S. congressional deal that could ease restrictions on releasing Guantanamo detainees doesn’t go nearly far enough towards closing the controversial prison, defense lawyers and rights advocates said.
The deal, negotiated by a bipartisan group of senior lawmakers late Monday, would make it easier to send detainees home or to a third country, but would bar their transfer to the United Sates.
The agreement, which must still be approved by House of Representatives and the Senate, “does not close Guantanamo or anything close,” emphasized lawyer James Connell.
Military lawyer Suzanne Lachelier, who has worked for years in the Cuba enclave, said closing the jail “will take more than the release of the prisoners who have been ruled ‘transferable.'”
“Those labeled ‘high value detainees’ would remain (in the jail), and Congress is unlikely to ever allow them to be transferred to the United States,” she said.
When President Barack Obama took office nearly five years ago, closing the detention center was one of his first promises. But today, 162 men remain behind bars there.
Most have been held for nearly 12 years, without ever being charged or tried, a situation that has discredited the U.S. reputation abroad.
And 82 of the inmates — more than half of whom are from Yemen — are cleared for release, meaning authorities have no evidence incriminating them.
Some rights advocates cheered the congressional deal.
It’s a “first step toward untangling the knot that is Guantanamo,” Human Rights First’s Dixon Osburn said in a statement.
“It provides a path forward for foreign transfers that balances our security interests and our legal obligations,” he added.
But Connell, who defends one of the five men accused of the September 11, 2001 attacks, was less impressed.
“The central problems of Guantanamo — indefinite detention, second-class justice, and inadequate medical care — remain,” he said.
And freeing the “releasable” detainees could make the situation harder for those “high-value detainees” who remained at Guantanamo, said Lachelier, who represents another of the men accused of the September 11 attacks.
“The injustices and torture experienced by the ‘HVD’ prisoners risks losing the attention of the world, when — or if — other detainees are transferred,” she said.
One step forward, one step back
Of the 80 inmates who haven’t been cleared for release, around 20 have been dubbed high value by the Pentagon and are being held in Guantanamo’s ultra-secure, notorious “Camp Seven.” They are each accused of links to Al-Qaeda or involvement in deadly attacks.
Some of their cases are classified as “defense secrets,” because they came through secret CIA prisons, where they say they were tortured. Others are suspected of still posing a risk to U.S. national security.
Among the remaining 60, the government is reviewing some cases, which could allow them to be redesignated, possibly facilitating their release.
But Republicans in the Congress continue to block the transfer to the United States of any inmates, even to face trial and jail in high security prisons.
The congressional “restriction on transfers to the U.S., even for trial or medical treatment, is a terrible blow for human rights,” said Steven Hawkins, director of Amnesty International USA.
The new compromise bill would be like “one step forward and one step back,” he said, calling on Obama to “find a solution to end the Guantanamo crisis.”
And lawyers representing two men repatriated to Algeria last week, despite their fears they would be in danger there, said the new congressional rule was “very positive,” but said the transfer of their clients was a misstep.
Rob Kirsch, defense lawyer for the one of the men, said the transfers were aimed at making a political point rather than helping the two men.
“It’s very clear that the special envoy is pushing people out who would actually prefer to stay in Guantanamo,” he told AFP, calling it an “extraordinary” move.
Ian Moss, advisory to Special Envoy Cliff Sloan, defended Obama’s actions on Guantanamo, saying they “understand that from time to time, from various quarters, we will receive criticism.”
He reiterated that the government was “absolutely committed to moving forward with closing Guantanamo, and doing so in a responsible manner.”
AFP Photo/Chantal Valery