On the weekend of March 21, 2014, members of Witness Against Torture (WAT) gathered in Baltimore, Maryland for a strategic planning meeting. One of the ideas that came from the meeting was the upcoming one year anniversary of President Obama’s National Defense Speech on May 23, 2014, in which he renewed his promise to close Guantanamo Bay Prison. Last year’s promise came about after pressure exerted on Obama to commit to action after the men still held, embarked on a prison-wide hunger strike. He said:
“Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo…But once we commit to a process of closing Gitmo, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law…Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are — being held on a hunger strike…Is that who we are? Is that something our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.”
In the 365 days since President Obama’s second promise to close Guantanamo, he appointed two envoys to deal with the closure of Guantanamo and has lifted the ban against sending detainees back to Yemen, yet no Yemeni have been transferred. 78 men have been cleared for release. Of them more than half are Yemeni. Mahmoud al-Mujahid,Abdel Malik al-Rahabi, Ghaleb Nassar al-Bihani are three Yemeni “forever prisoners” who have been cleared for release through the Periodic Review Board. A total of 154 men still remain inside GTMO. The longest running hunger strike inside the prison continues at nearly 500 days, up to 40 are still on hunger strike, 19 are being force-fed. 12 men have been released in the past year. This follows a two and a year halt in which only 5 men were released. Although Congress has set restrictions in order to stop the President from keeping to his promise, the President has failed to use his political capital.
Global Call to Action
An organizing team of less than 10 people from Witness Against Torture started writing letters to human rights groups and local communities to mobilize a global call to close Guantanamo Bay on May 23, 2014. A virtual toolkit including a press template, poems and letters from detainees, and a social media strategy was made available. Supplies were also mailed from WAT’s New York City location. Congress has set up road blocks against President Obama to close Guantanamo, however the President has been able to leave the prison on the back burner from lack of pressure from The People. The focus of May 23 was to get Guantanamo back into conversation and to gain attention from the missing American mainstream media.
Is This Who We Are?
A total of 34 human rights groups across the nation in 50 cities spanning over eight countries on six continents held vigils, marches, banner drops and programs with groups of as little as 5 people up to 100 people. The Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, Washington DC, was joined by Amnesty International, The National Religious Campaign, Ray McGovern and others in front of the White House during their weekly noon vigil. A family of six held a vigil in Rochester, New York.
In New York City Witness Against Torture, The Center for Constitutional Rights, World Can’t Wait, 9/11 Families of Peaceful Tomorrows, and more groups recited a mic check in front of the Navy Recruitment Center in Times Square reciting a mic check to thousands of tourists: “Two winters ago. The men at Guantanamo began a new hunger strike so the world would hear them…” The group asked the same question Obama asked one year ago, “‘Is this who we are?’ Indefinite detention, solitary confinement, mass incarceration, torture, forever prisoner, force-feeding?”
A letter from Moath al-Alwi was also read:
“When I choose to remain in my cell in an act of peaceful protest against the force-feeding, the prison authorities send in a Forced Cell Extraction team: six guards in full riot gear. Those guards are deliberately brutal to punish me for my protest. They pile up on top of me to the point that I feel like my back is about to break. They then carry me out and strap me into the restraint chair, which we hunger strikers call the torture chair.”
Ramzi Kassem, a Professor of Law and representative of Shaker Aamer, was also present. He said, “My clients, all men, since 2005, have been extremely grateful, specifically Witness Against Torture, and other organizations for organizing to close Guantanamo. They are very interested in solidarity actions, fascinated by what happens in US And especially grateful when people in US stand in solidarity with them. They are interested in the rolling hunger strikes and the January anniversary events.”
One Week Following The Protest, 5 “Forever Prisoners” in Exchange for an American
On May 31, 2014, five Afghan Taliban captives were released from the prison in exchange for US prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. According to US government officials, Congress was notified as the swap was in progress. They were not given 30-day notice as per regular protocol ending the nearly five year capture of Bergdahl in Afghanistan. Leaked Pentagon records show that all five were captured during the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Three of them arrived in Guantanamo when the prison opened on January 11, 2001. The other two arrived later that year. The exchange of five Afghans for one American speaks volumes in government priority. 38 detainees nick-named “forever prisoners” remain because of their enemy combatant status in a never-ending war against terrorism.
Human rights groups will be meeting again June 26-30, 2014 in DC to commemorate Torture Awareness Month and to plan future actions.