Guantanamo Bay - President Obama's shame: The forgotten prisoners of America's own Gulag

No charge, but no release. Yesterday the anger of hunger-striking detainees boiled over in clashes with their jailers

For long periods we forget it, even though it is a human rights disgrace surely unequalled in recent American history. But now, 11 years after it opened, the prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay is demanding our attention once again, thanks to the largest hunger strike by detainees in its infamous history. Al-Qa'ida has been decimated; America's war in Iraq is over and the one in Afghanistan soon will be. But the scandal of Guantanamo endures.


Today, 166 inmates remain. Three have been convicted, while a further 30 will face trial. Fifty or so are in a legal no-man's-land, deemed by the authorities too dangerous to release but against whom there is not enough evidence to prosecute. And then there are 86 who have been cleared for release, but who instead rot in a hell from which there is no escape. No wonder yesterday more than 160 of them were involved in clashes with guards that led to what the US said were "less than lethal" rounds being fired.

In 2009, Barack Obama entered office vowing to close Guantanamo within a year. Perhaps he should have listened more closely to his predecessor. George W Bush, too, wanted to shut Guantanamo; even he came to understand it was perhaps the most powerful single recruiting agent for global terrorism. But, he warned presciently, the devil was in the detail – or, more exactly, in Congress. Mr Obama's planned to transfer most inmates to a high-security prison in Illinois, but that idea was blocked. Then Congress made things harder still, first scotching a plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the organiser of 9/11 and Guantanamo's best-known prisoner, in a civil court in the US, and effectively banning the use of public money to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the US or abroad.

Even so, Dan Fried, the special envoy in charge of closing the prison, managed to resettle 40 detainees during Obama's first term. But at the end of January, Mr Fried was reassigned and not replaced, his duties incorporated into the State Department's existing legal office. For the 86 inmates eligible for release it was the last straw. Within a week the hunger strikes started.

Detainees tell their lawyers that up to 130 now are taking part. The Pentagon claims they number no more than 40, of whom a dozen are being force-fed. Given the lack of independent access to Guantanamo, the exact number is impossible to establish. Like others before it, the protest may have been sparked by complaints that guards were abusing detainees' copies of the Koran. But even the Pentagon admits the real reason was despair. Inmates were "devastated" by the signal that the administration no longer believed that closing the prison was a realistic priority, Marine General John Kelly told Congress, so "they want to turn the heat up, get it back in the media". And who can blame them?

By all accounts, the atmosphere within Guantanamo has never been as bleak. The Soviet Union had gulags, "but no Soviet gulag ever had 52 per cent of its prisoners cleared for release," says Clive Stafford Smith, director of the legal charity Reprieve, who has been representing Guantanamo detainees almost since the place opened in January 2002... 
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