In his speech in Egypt on Thursday, in which he promised "A New Beginning," Barack Obama did not specifically mention the death of a prisoner at Guantánamo on Monday — and the extent to which the prison’s existence has soured relations between the United States and the Muslim world — except to repeat his most concise promise to move on from the lawlessness of the Bush years: "I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantánamo Bay closed by early next year."
And yet, Guantánamo — and recent events at the prison — hovered unnervingly over the President’s visit to the Middle East. A death at Guantánamo is always felt keenly in the Muslim world, and is also uncomfortable for the Obama administration, which, since reviewing conditions at the prison in January, claims that it is running a "humane" facility.
Behind the rhetoric, however, the truth is still bleak. Guantánamo may look, more than ever, like a regular U.S. prison, with half of the remaining 239 prisoners now sharing communal facilities, and others, in two maximum security blocks, allowed limited opportunities to socialize, but the prisoners held there have, for the most part, been imprisoned without charge or trial for over seven years, unlike even the most hardened convicted criminals on the U.S. mainland.
In addition, the widespread euphoria that greeted Obama’s election victory, and the hope that it would result in the prison’s swift closure, has turned to frustration, as only two prisoners (Binyam Mohamed and Lakhdar Boumediene) have been released in the last four months. Shane Kadidal, a lawyer with New York’s Center for Constitutional Rights, explained that the prisoners were now saying, "At least Bush sent some people home," and further frustration has greeted news that Obama is considering proposing new legislation authorizing "preventive detention" for up to a hundred of the remaining prisoners, effectively legitimizing the Bush administration’s detention policies.
As a result, many of the prisoners, like Muhammad Salih, the Yemeni prisoner who died on Monday, apparently by committing suicide, have resorted to hunger strikes as the only means of protesting against their arbitrary and seemingly endless imprisonment. For these men, strapped into a restraint chair twice a day, and force-fed against their will via a tube that is thrust up their noses and into their stomachs, the prison is anything but "humane."
Muhammad Salih was the fifth prisoner to commit suicide at Guantánamo, but the first under Obama’s watch. In keeping with the President’s desire to portray the prison in the best possible light, it is unlikely that anyone in the administration will make a comment to compare with a statement made by Rear Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of Guantánamo at the time of the first three deaths in June 2006, who said, "I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us." However, it is also unlikely that the government will come clean about Muhammad Salih’s status, and concede that there is no evidence that he even remotely resembled one of the fabled "terror suspects" whom the prison was ostensibly established to hold.
Salih himself admitted that he had traveled to Afghanistan many months before the 9/11 attacks, to fight as a foot soldier for the Taliban against the Muslims of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan’s long-running civil war. When the U.S. military reviewed his case at Guantánamo in 2004, he acknowledged being a member of the Taliban, but made a point of adding, "Yes, but that doesn’t mean I supported Osama bin Laden."
With no information to indicate that Muhammad Salih was connected to al-Qaeda’s terrorist activities, his death should serve as another important reminder that the Bush administration’s policy of subjecting prisoners to arbitrary detention as "enemy combatants" has been a wretched failure. Had the former regime obeyed domestic and international laws, it would have held those regarded as terrorists as criminal suspects, to be prosecuted in federal courts, and, after adequate screening (which never took place) would have held other combatants as prisoners of war, according to the Geneva Conventions.
If this had happened, we would now be discussing whether it was feasible to imprison someone until the end of hostilities in a "war" whose supporters regard it as a struggle that might last for generations, and the answer, of course, would be no. Muhammad Salih, a foot soldier in another war, which preceded the 9/11 attacks, and had nothing to do with international terrorism, had been imprisoned for longer than the duration of the Second World War when his life ended in Guantánamo, even though the circumstances in which he was captured — during the overthrow of the Taliban and the establishment of a new Afghan government — came to an end no later than 3 November 2004, when Hamid Karzai was elected as President.
Although the response to Muhammad Salih’s death has been muted in the West, and did not surface publicly in the Middle East during President Obama’s visit, the ripples from the latest death in Guantánamo — and, no doubt, rumors that Salih was killed, or, perhaps more convincingly, that he died as a result of years of brutal force-feeding — surely made themselves felt behind the scenes. If Obama truly wishes to distance himself from the lawless initiatives of his predecessor, he needs to think deeply about an appropriate response, and will, I hope, reflect on the distinction between terror suspects and foot soldiers, rethink what "preventive detention" really means, and, above all, move swiftly to release more prisoners before there are any other deaths at Guantánamo.