Why Are These People Still Caged?

11-year anti-Gitmo rally in front of the U.S Supreme Court in Washington on Friday.
11-year anti-Gitmo rally in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington on Friday.

Ten-year anniversaries can be a golden opportunity to redirect public attention to an ongoing crisis or bad policy that has yet to be resolved. But the 11th anniversary, well, it can be kind of sad. So is the case with the campaign to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison facility, which this week celebrated its own 11-year marker.

Sad was the weather in Washington, DC on Friday – cold with a spittle of rain, just to make it annoying. Gray was the color. Then, if you happened to be walking up Capitol Hill towards the Supreme Court around noon, a burst of orange. Assembled there was a small group of the most dedicated voices behind the anti-Gitmo movement today (others demonstrated in different places over the weekend, like San Francisco and London). Many were here at this place last year. Now, their numbers clearly thinned (but no less vociferous), they appeared girded for another go-around, but their waning hope that the jail would be closed anytime soon was palatable.

"It’s very sad," acknowledged Sheila Stumph, who came all the way from upstate New York with her two daughters, ages 3 and 6, in tow. She wants them to learn the right and wrong of things. But it was hard Friday to keep all their spirits up – and not just because of the weather. "It’s just a shame. Especially when Obama said we would not have to be here."

President Obama is probably the least popular guy with this crowd right now – a 180-degree turn from four years ago, when he signed an executive order to close the prison and embark on an inter-agency task force to start thinning out the inmate population, adding to the several dozen who had already been cleared by the Bush Administration to leave. Back then there were 250 inmates, now there are 166 who languish there – 86 have been certified for transfer – meaning they are not terrorists – some of them as long ago as 2004.

But politics, congressional bombast and obstruction – and no doubt a few weak knees – turned a path to closure into a disappointing dead end. Two weeks into 2013, Obama has in effect sentenced those innocent inmates to further indefinite detention by signing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which prohibits funding for any such prisoner transfers – for detention or trial – to U.S soil this year. It also extends a ban on any transfers of cleared individuals to their home countries or to third country resettlement overseas. This has been declared one of the worst blows to the cause since the Obama Administration decided in 2011 to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his 9/11 co-conspirators in a military tribunal at Gitmo instead of in a civilian court as promised.

(Ret) Col. Morris Davis, who left a prestigious position as Gitmo’s chief prosecutor in 2005 in protest over the use of evidence gleaned through torture, and has been a top critic of the prison ever since, said the NDAA was just the latest Congressional roadblock. Obama, he said, threatened to veto the NDAA this year and the last but in the end, punted. "I say there’s another p-word to describe what he’s done," Davis told an audience at an 11th Anniversary panel at The New America Foundation Friday morning.

Folks aren’t just sad, they’re mad. "This is like groundhog day – we come back here, telling the same story over and over" Morris said, noting the familiar faces from the 10th anniversary panel.

But while they are all back, the dedicated souls who traveled to Washington and other cities know with every passing year, they must get bigger megaphones to be heard. Sometimes, it seems the public has just ceased to listen. "If you go on Google News today, you won’t find (Guantanamo) even if you look for it. Americans can care less about it," decried Morris.

Washington Attorney Thomas Wilner, who also spoke and was seen later at the Supreme Court rally, also lamented that "Guantanamo is off the map." Both he and Morris had been establishment figures who risked ridicule and career suicide – Morris for blasting the system while active duty military, and in a subsequent job at the Congressional Research Service; Wilner for taking on the defense of a dozen Gitmo prisoners – one all the way to the Supreme Court. Now they are just hoping to keep the issue alive enough through another fight.

"Guantanamo is wrong," he said simply.

"The whole thing is a house of cards …it’s hollow and disgusting," blasted British author Andy Worthington, also on hand for the Washington commemoration and rally. He was describing for the same audience the prison and its ill-fated inmates, so many of whom are there on trumped-up charges generated through bribes, torture and fellow inmates who will say anything to please their jailors. How does he know? For the last decade, Worthington has been obtaining documents, researching and interviewing the prisoners and their families, culminating with his acclaimed book, The Guantanamo Files, in 2007. But despite everything Worthingon has exposed, even with all the dirty details confirmed by Wikileaks in 2011, the issue has fallen further off the public radar, and Congress more emboldened than ever to keep 86 men caged away even after they were told they could leave.

"These people are not dangerous, the task force would have never approved them to go if they were dangerous in any way," he said. Saying they are "cleared" but finding ways to keep them there (the reason given for the nix on any transfer overseas is that several of these home countries have "terrorist problems" right now) is "dishonest."

"That’s more cruel than a dictatorship," Worthington added, noting the recent death of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, 36, who had been held without charge at Gitmo since 2001. A court had cleared him for release in 2010 but the decision was being blocked by federal appeals court ruling. His death was ruled a suicide in December.

That’s what the orange jump-suited campaigners with black hoods over their heads were trying to convey as they marched down the fabled Washington sidewalks in silence on Friday. Faceless, freedomless. Forgotten.

Around them was an interesting mélange. After 11 years this protest has decidedly taken on the look and feel of modern street activism, not so unlike the antiwar movement today. Despite whatever ignorant caricatures that remain, in this group, older hippies were far outnumbered by ladies in high-heeled boots, men in well-heeled suits, veterans on bikes, serious young urbanites, senior citizens and college folk, black, white, and brown. Stumph wasn’t the only mother, another had a baby, wrapped up tight in a blue papoose, and a little girl in a stroller.

One guy with an expensive-looking Rex Harrison hat chomped on a cigar talking with a smartly dressed lady under a leopard print umbrella. Another man, David Maclean, 79, from Springfield, Virginia, said he couldn’t stay for all the day’s events because he had to help his church prepare to take in a dozen homeless people for the evening.

David Maclean, 79, of Springfield, VA., says he will come out every year until Gitmo is closed.
David Maclean, 79, of Springfield, VA., says he will come out every year until Gitmo is closed.

"I’m disappointed. I’m appalled," he said when asked about Obama’s failure to close Gitmo. But surprised? No. He said he has been fighting for human rights for 25 years and considers the imprisonment of individuals indefinately, without charge or trial, a denial of a basic human right. "This is going to be a hard slog. You just have to be persistent," he said, as he took careful steps over the slick asphalt, stopping in front of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, trudging down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the empty inaugural staging, ever closer toward the target of the marchers’ ire. They ended at Presidents Park for a round of more speeches. Maclean’s is a moral march, he said, and he doesn’t care how long it takes.

"This is where the proverbial drops of water get to wear down the marble slab," he said with an optimism everyone around him hoped to share by the day’s end.

Sadly, as we know from our history, it took a lot less time than that to build Gitmo, yet no one – even the most optimistic – believes it can be taken down in a day. But this group wants first things first: they want Obama to start exercising his veto power, get through the Congressional obstruction and start a new, full-faith effort in negotiating transfers for the cleared prisoners.

"I’d argue that the real patriots are the men and women who came out to march in the cold and the rain on January 11th," Morris told Antiwar afterwards.

"(Obama’s) second term will define President Obama’s legacy.  If he wants history to remember him as a leader who inspired hope and change rather than perpetuated fear and despair he’s got show some backbone and stand up for the principles he espoused," Morris added.

"If not, we’ll be back every January 11th to remind him and the world of his promises broken."

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.