SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Suleiman al-Nahdi waits with dozens of other prisoners in a seemingly permanent state of limbo five years after he was cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay.
“I wonder if the U.S. government wants to keep us here forever,” the 37-year-old al-Nahdi wrote in a recent letter to his lawyers.
Open for 10 years on Wednesday, the prison seems more established than ever. The deadline set by President Barack Obama to close Guantanamo came and went two years ago. No detainee has left in a year because of restrictions on transfers, and indefinite military detention is now enshrined in U.S. law.
The 10th anniversary will be the subject of demonstrations in London and Washington. Prisoners at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba plan to mark the day with sit-ins, banners and a refusal of meals, said Ramzi Kassem, a lawyer who represents seven inmates.
“They would like to send a message that the prisoners of Guantanamo still reject the injustice of their imprisonment,” said Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York.
Prisoners informed the guards in advance that they would be conducting peaceful protests to mark the anniversary, Navy Cmdr. Tamsen Reese, a spokeswoman for the detention center, said Tuesday, adding that such actions are “not uncommon” at Guantanamo.
Human rights groups and lawyers for prisoners are dismayed that Obama not only failed to overcome resistance in Congress and close the prison, but that his administration has resumed military tribunals at the base and continues to hold men like al-Nahdi who have been cleared for release.
Critics are also angry over the president’s Dec. 31 signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision allowing indefinite military detention without trial.
“Now, we have Guantanamo forever signed into law,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch. “Instead of pushing forward with the agenda of closure, he has accepted the idea of indefinite detention for the duration of some undefined hostilities.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that Obama still wants to close Guantanamo because “it’s the right thing to do for our national security interest,” a view that he says is shared by senior members of the military. He noted President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, while running for president in 2008, also supported closing the prison.
“The commitment that the president has to closing Guantanamo Bay is as firm today as it was during the campaign … I think this is a process that faces obstacles that we’re all aware of and we will continue to work through them,” Carney said.
Today, Guantanamo holds 171 prisoners and it’s an odd mix. Thirty-six await trial on war crimes charges, including the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. There are 46 in indefinite detention as men the U.S. considers dangerous but who cannot be charged for lack of evidence or other reasons. The U.S. wants to release 32 but hasn’t, largely because of congressional restrictions, and 57 men from Yemen, like al-Nahdi, aren’t being charged but the government won’t let them go because their country is unstable.
“There is not a thing keeping them from going home except that our clever government is waiting for conditions to improve in Yemen, where they have only deteriorated,” said John Chandler, a lawyer based in Atlanta, Georgia, who represents al-Nahdi.
Few expected Guantanamo to reach this milestone. The prison, which occupies a portion of the 45-square-mile (115-square-kilometer) U.S. base at the southeastern corner of Cuba, started as an impromptu place to hold men scooped up at the start of the Afghanistan war, a mix that turned out to range from hard-core al-Qaida members to hapless bystanders.
Al-Nahdi seems to be in the middle. He was detained because he attended an al-Qaida-linked training camp in Afghanistan but he was not accused of any specific attacks on U.S. forces. The military classified him as a “low level” mujahedeen who could be transferred out of Guantanamo, where he has been held since June 2002.
The first prisoners, brought to the base shackled and hooded and clad in bright orange jumpsuits, were kept in outdoor cages and interrogated in wooden huts when they arrived on Jan. 11, 2002. With detainees later kept in steel mesh cells, the population grew to nearly 700 by mid-2003.
From the start, the camps seethed with tension. Prisoners, some subjected to harsh interrogations and sleep deprivation, staged mass hunger strikes, and banged on their cell doors for hours and hurled bodily fluids at guards.
In ensuing years, the military erected a modern prison complex virtually indistinguishable from a typical jail, keeping most men in communal blocks with amenities such as video games and cable TV.
U.S. officials have rejected most allegations of abusive conditions, and reports of clashes with guards and turmoil have dropped along with the decline in the prison population.
But the U.S. government also decided Guantanamo’s reputation was more trouble than it was worth and began trying to empty it under Bush. His administration released 537 prisoners, transferring them to other countries or freeing them outright.
Under Obama, Congress balked at releasing prisoners, citing concerns that some already let go had rejoined the Taliban or al-Qaida. Congress imposed a requirement that the Defense Department certify a prisoner did not pose a threat if released, a guarantee that officials said was nearly impossible to grant. The law Obama signed Dec. 31 softened the language, but it’s been a year since a single man has been transferred out.
“These are men who were in their early 20s when they were picked up and now they are in their early 30s and a significant amount of their lives has slipped away while this debate has gone on and on and on,” said Cori Crider, a lawyer for the British human rights group Reprieve who represents several Guantanamo prisoners.
Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Congress was more interested in scoring political points, and should listen to security experts.
“We are not talking about releasing anyone who is dangerous. We’re talking about releasing people who the intelligence and military communities have unanimously agreed should be released,” Katznelson said.
Congress also has prohibited moving any Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. for detention or trial, which effectively blocked Obama’s goal of closing the prison by January 2009 and trying the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and others accused of war crimes in a civilian court. Mohammed is expected to be arraigned at the base later this year.
Congress also stripped the prisoners of the right to challenge their detention in the courts by filing writs of habeas corpus. The Supreme Court returned that right, but the courts have said the U.S. can still detain men even if there is little evidence against them and no intention of charging them. When prisoners have won their cases in a lower court, the government has appealed and won.
With such a bleak legal landscape, Chandler and his co-counsel withdrew al-Nahdi’s appeal rather than face certain defeat. It’s made for difficult meetings when the lawyers must explain why so many others, including prisoners who were convicted of war crimes, have been released.
“He says: ‘How come I can’t go home? I’ve never been charged and I’m never going to be charged. And of course, I have no answer to those questions,” Chandler said.