Unravelling Guantánamo

It’s all beginning to unravel, says The Times, referring to a European deadlock over which countries might be able to lend a hand in closing Guantánamo. Plus, says the Times story, there’s a new “taunting” video from former Guantánamo prisoners on a “jihadist website”.

There are two things going on here and the politics and public relations behind them look strange to me. Recently the Pentagon has been putting out an unsubstantiated story that 61 former Guantánamo prisoners have “returned to the battlefield”.

A correspondent in the Guardian today takes issue with this, and quite rightly so. Where’s the evidence? Were they ever on the battlefield in the first place? What are the people behind the briefing saying anyway – that these are “dangerous people that we don’t want to release except you’re forcing us to …”? (As the letter writer suggests, it is possible that a small minority of former detainees will have been made more likely to engage in terrorism precisely because they have been held for years without trial and tortured in US detention).

Overall, this is a bit like those periodic moral panics we have in Britain over the early release of prisoners who go on to commit serious crimes. The one – very crucial difference – being that released Guantánamo prisoners have not been convicted of anything. Essentially, do we still believe in the legal principle of being presumed innocent until proven guilty or are we allowing a long Pentagon-White House pattern of “war on terror” innuendo and unaccountable accusations (sometimes shown to be entirely untrue) to cloud our judgment?

The other issue here is that by simultaneously talking up the supposedly “recidivist” dimension to the Guantánamo situation, the much-publicised effort to relocate the Uighurs, Algerians, Tajiks, Uzbeks and other prisoners who would face persecution if sent to their countries of origin is surely being made more difficult.

So you’d hope that President Obama and his team are not behind the “back to the battlefield” leaks but it’s impossible to know. (As fellow Amnesty blogger Fiona suggests, join the Guardian debate on the UK’s so far less than helpful role in this).

Certainly what we do know about President Obama’s seven days in the Oval Office is not unalloyed good news when it come to human rights. Excellent early movement on Guantánamo, secret detentions and torture has to be placed in the context of worrying Obama-ordered drone missile strikes in Pakistan on Friday (more discussion from me on this in a recent Telegraph blog post).

The stakes are really high. The effort to close Guantánamo, put people before fair trials or safely release them can’t afford to fail and nor can the effort to ensure that prisoners in places like Bagram (“the other Guantánamo”) are not forgotten.

This is not all going to be sorted out quickly (the Amnesty 100 Days campaign being just a marker in this) but I sincerely hope it’s not unravelling already.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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