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‘I am fallen into darkness.’ The case of Obaidullah, Guantánamo detainee now in his 12th year without trial

July 26, 2013

I am deeply disappointed that the US Government has not been able to close Guantánamo Bay, despite repeatedly committing itself to do so… [T]his systemic abuse of individuals' human rights continues year after year. We must be clear about this: the United States is in clear breach not just of its own commitments but also of international laws and standards that it is obliged to uphold
United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay, 5 April 2013

In a speech before a joint session of Congress on 25 May 1961, President John F. Kennedy called for the USA to commit to "achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth". This goal was achieved eight years later. It is now some eight years since the US administration first committed itself to closing the prison camp at its naval base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, according to the last two US Presidents. By early 2005, President George W. Bush had recognized that the detentions of foreign nationals at Guantánamo had become "a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies", so he worked to "find a way to close the prison". By the time he left office, however, there were still some 245 detainees held there.

In January 2009, President Barack Obama came to office and described the Guantánamo detentions as "a misguided experiment", set up under "the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the law". By any measure, he said, "the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it". Four years later, however, the prison was still open. In a speech on 23 May 2013, four months into his second term, with at least 100 detainees on hunger strike, President Obama said that the Guantánamo detention facility had "become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law" and reiterated that it should be shut down. Two months has passed since then and no more detainees have been transferred or released from the base in that time.

"I believe we possess all the resources and all the talents necessary" to land a man on the moon and bring him back, President Kennedy said in his May 1961 speech. The USA surely has all the resources and talents necessary to close a prison. Absent here is the political will and a commitment to international human rights principles.

Beginning in January 2002, a total of 779 men, some of whom were teenagers at the time, have been brought to Guantánamo, secreted away in the initial years without access to counsel or court, and without any independent judicial review of their detention. Today, 166 men are still at Guantánamo, most of them in indefinite detention without charge or criminal trial. The detainee population has remained at this level since 29 September 2012.

One of the detainees is Obaidullah, an Afghan national who was about 19 years old when taken from his home in eastern Afghanistan in the middle of the night by US armed forces, and who entered his 12th year in US military custody on 21 July 2013. From his allegations of torture and other ill-treatment during interrogations to indefinite detention without criminal trial to hunger strikes protesting conditions of detention, Obaidullah's experience exemplifies the multiple violations of human rights perpetrated by a country that claims to be committed to the respect and promotion of international human rights principles.

Meanwhile the USA pursues its space travel plans. "By the mid-2030s," President Obama has said, "I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth." He has also called on the country to imagine a future 10 or 20 years from now with Guantánamo detainees still held without charge and how harsh history's judgment of that scenario would be and of "those of us who fail to end it". But fair and lawful resolution of the detentions is already years overdue. So when will we see Obaidullah and the other detainees flown out of Guantánamo and their years of torment and injustice ended? The answer should be now.