President Barack Obama was among the many world leaders who flocked to Johannesburg this month to associate themselves with the legacy of peace and reconciliation for which Nelson Mandela stood.
To a standing ovation, Obama told the throng: “We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace.” Obama, who like Mandela became the first black president of his country, went on to recount that when he was a student; Mandela “woke me up to my responsibilities – to others, and to myself – and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today”.
However, those words ring hollow in the echo of one of Mandela’s many wise pronouncements: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
Despite the aura of “exceptionalism” it promotes, the United States has a dismal track record when it comes to incarceration. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the US has had the highest incarceration rate in the world since 2002. The “natural” rate of incarceration for countries comparable to the US tends to be around 100 prisoners per 100,000 population. In contrast, the US rate is 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents.
Those statistics are bad enough by themselves. But then consider the disparity of their impact. The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee found this year that, “One in every three black males born (in the US) today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared with one in every 17 white males, if current incarceration trends continue.” And if you happen to be Muslim, your chance of getting fair treatment declines further.
However, perhaps the most notorious of US prisons is Guantanamo Bay, our own “Gulag” that became synonymous after 9/11 with indefinite detention without charge, and inhumane conditions ranging from desecration of prisoners’ holy books to torture.
When Obama first came into office, 240 individuals were still detained in Guantanamo, most for more than 11 years. Only 24 were considered to be guilty of plotting against the US.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama described Guantanamo as a “sad chapter in American history”, and promised to close it down. After he was elected, Obama reiterated his campaign pledge on national television.
Five years later, 158 prisoners remain in Guantanamo – all still held without charge or trial. Seventy-nine have been cleared for release, but remain isolated and behind bars, thousands of miles from home.
We travelled to Yemen with a Codepink delegation earlier this year and listened to the families of these men tell their stories. Among our impressions that night: The stories have an eerie sameness – men who suddenly disappear off the streets, frequently while travelling in targeted countries, with no explanation to the victims or the families who are left behind, waiting in confusion and desperation for their sons, fathers and husbands. They learned of their loved ones’ fate only from a TV report or a phone call from the Red Cross, many months later. If we didn’t know otherwise, we’d think we were listening to the subjects of a despot in a Third World dictatorship.
The story of 12-year-old Awda particularly sticks in our minds. Her mother was pregnant in 2001 when her father, Abdulrahman al-Shubati, travelled to Pakistan to earn extra money as a teacher of the Quran. However, he suddenly disappeared without a trace and her mother gave birth alone. It wasn’t until a year later that mother and daughter learned what had happened to him: A caller from the Red Cross announced that al-Shubati had been imprisoned in Guantanamo. Awda has never seen her father. In Arabic, the little girl’s name means “come back”.
In May, just before the Codepink group left for Yemen, Obama responded to an expanding hunger strike among the prisoners by renewing his promise to close Guantanamo. Seemingly serious, he appointed three special liaisons to oversee the process: Lisa Monaco at the White House, attorney Clifford Sloan at the State Department and Paul Lewis, a Congressional committee attorney and former Marine Corps judge advocate, at the Pentagon.
To be fair, there has been some progress since then. This month, the US repatriated two prisoners to Saudi Arabia, two to Sudan and another two to Algeria (the latter against their will).
In addition, the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – just passed this month by both the US House and Senate – contains provisions that make it easier to send detainees home or to a third country. (It maintains a ban on transferring them to the US for prosecution, incarceration or emergency medical treatment.)
However, progress for the Yemeni detainees is glacially slow. They represent more than half of the remaining prisoners in Guantanamo – including 55 who have been approved for transfer home since 2008. At least two other Yemenis are in US custody in Afghanistan.
Yemen wants them, but the Obama administration is insisting on the prior construction of what sounds like another sort of prison to receive them. Although this facility is to be for “rehabilitation”, most of the official descriptions and media depictions sound suspiciously like another form of detention and punishment. And yet, these individuals have never been charged with any crime, and there appears to be no evidence that they have actually done anything that would withstand the scrutiny of a court. It’s hard not to speculate that the authorities want to suppress information about their own wrong-doing. If they need rehabilitation for anything, it’s likely from the torturous treatment within Guantanamo.
As Falguni A Sheth, a professor of philosophy and political theory at Hampshire College, wrote in Salon: “If the agents of a foreign government kidnapped and tortured you, threatened to hurt your family, locked you up in a tiny cage for twelve years while guards disciplined and humiliated you, mashed up your Bible, periodically beat you for having the temerity to be unsatisfied with the arrangement, and challenged your ability to hunger strike by violently forcing a tube up your nose three times a day – all without ever charging you with a crime or showing evidence of wrongdoing – you’d be angry enough to dream of ways of getting back at that government and its officials if you were ever released.”
Prison or halfway house?
Yemeni officials have drawn up preliminary plans for the facility outside the capital, Sanaa, but final agreement is likely months away. Deep disagreements remain on who will fund it, and about whether it would function as another prison or as a halfway house for detainees to re-enter society after years of confinement and isolation.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has announced a gag order for information about the hunger strike among the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo. The latest wave began in February 2013 and grew to as many as 106 prisoners over the summer. The Pentagon now says it will stop disclosing how many prisoners are on hunger strike and will reject all media requests for information. A military spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “It’s (the strikers’) desire to draw attention to themselves, and so we’re not going to help them do that.”
So now in addition to their liberty, we want to take away their voices – their only way of resisting. Any risk these men still pose – if they ever were a danger at all – is speculative at best. According to the New America Foundation, a mere 3.5 percent of the 603 prisoners released from Guantanamo as of May of 2013, engaged in terrorist activity against the US, or are suspected of doing so, after being released.
Is that justification for continuing to deprive people like Abdulrahman al-Shubati and his daughter Awda of any hope of a normal life?
Let’s right the wrong and allow him and the others to go home. Not in another year, or even six months. Today.
Medea Benjamin is the cofounder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange.