WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama may have renewed his vow to close the Guantanamo prison this week, but many are skeptical he will really be able to end this controversial chapter of US history.
“I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it,” Obama said, renewing a promise made during his first presidential campaign, but so far unfulfilled.
Lawyer Omar Farah of the Center for Constitutional Rights said Obama’s latest pledge changes little for Guantanamo detainees, who “have heard countless promises from candidate Obama, then President Obama.”
In one of his first acts in office, Obama fulfilled his campaign pledge to sign an order to close the prison within a year.
Five years and a second term election later, 166 inmates remain behind bars at the US military prison in southern Cuba — even though more than half have been cleared for release.
Now, authorities say 103 of the inmates are on hunger strike, refusing food to protest their indefinite detention without charge or trial.
Farah said Obama’s latest pronouncement is unlikely to end the protest.
“I don’t expect the hunger strike to end until the president… takes concrete action,” he said.
David Remes, who represents 15 of the Yemeni detainees, said Obama’s words offer a mere “illusion” of progress.
“Once again, people may take away the message that the problem is being solved or has been solved and we can move on to other things — which is exactly what happened after he issued his executive order in January 2009,” he said.
“I don’t see any tangible improvement in the situation… I don’t see why (closing the prison) is more a possibility than it was before.”
During his speech on Thursday, Obama announced he would lift his moratorium on transferring Yemeni detainees home — paving the way to repatriate 56 of the Gulf state’s citizens who have been cleared for release.
He also indicated that he would name a new special envoy to supervise the release of the 30 other cleared prisoners.
He called on the Pentagon to designate a site on US soil to hold military tribunals for terror suspects now at Guantanamo Bay, and said Congress must now drop efforts to thwart his closure plans.
But he didn’t offer a solution for inmates deemed too dangerous for release but who cannot be tried because evidence against them was obtained through coercion and may not be admissible in court.
“Even if he follows through on every one of his promises, that would mean continuing indefinite detention without trials” for some prisoners and special military tribunals on US soil, said Andrea Prasow, Guantanamo expert for Human Rights Watch.
“Even if he does everything he said he would, he would still be doing things that are incredibly problematic.”
Analysts also questioned the president’s references to blocking maneuvers from lawmakers.
“The president himself has signed (the restrictions) into law, when he could have vetoed them,” said Farah.
And even still, “he has the latitude… to begin transferring men today,” the lawyer argued.
Virginia Sloan, president of The Constitution Project went further, warning the existing leeway could disappear.
“Some members of Congress are already pushing back,” she said.
“If the president is truly serious about fulfilling his promise, he needs to immediately use the authority he currently has to begin transferring cleared detainees out of Guantanamo.”
Many Republican lawmakers have reiterated their objections to closing the prison camp opened by ex-president George W. Bush, a fellow Republican.
“Gitmo serves an important function of detaining America’s most dangerous enemy combatants,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
Fellow Texan Representative Michael McCaul said “the president’s desire to close Guantanamo Bay leaves the homeland vulnerable to terrorists who will be transferred back to terror safe havens.”
And Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia called Yemen “about the worst place in the world” to transfer the terror suspects, citing fears they could be radicalized by extremists there.
But John McCain, a longtime senator from Arizona and Obama’s former rival from the 2008 campaign, has long been in favor of closing the jail.
He “has pledged to work with the president,” his office said, though it expressed hope for a “coherent” plan to address the concerns.