Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, North America

U.S.: World’s Most Controversial Prison Enters Ninth Year

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Jan 12 2010 (IPS) - As the world marked the beginning of the ninth year of detention at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba on Monday, a leading legal advocacy group filed suit against the Library of Congress for firing Guantanamo’s former chief prosecutor for writing articles criticising the use of military commissions to try suspected terrorists.

Col. Morris Davis, who was employed at Library’s Congressional Research Service (CRS), resigned as the military commissions’ chief prosecutor in October 2007, and became an outspoken critic of the commissions, including writing articles, giving speeches, and testifying before Congress that the system is fundamentally flawed.

The lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), alleges that Davis was fired because he wrote articles critical of the commissions. The ACLU contends that the discharge violates Davis’s rights of free speech and due process.

The ACLU lawsuit came as advocacy groups in several parts of the world conducted events to mark the eighth anniversary of the first detainees arriving for imprisonment without charge or trial at Guantánamo. The first batch of 20 prisoners arrived in Cuba in January 2002, after a 20-hour flight from Afghanistan, to be housed in what would grow into the controversial Guántanamo Bay detention centre.

In Washington, human rights advocates and lawyers of the detained men held a rally, a march, and a public briefing to outline current issues related to Guántanamo. They demanded that the president make good on his pledge to close the prison, and declared their opposition to any plan for holding prisoners without charge or trial in the U.S.

Formerly detained men and detainee families addressed President Barack Obama via a combination of video, audio and written letters.

Lakhdar Boumediene called in to the briefing at the National Press Club from his home in France, and Omar Deghayes joined the briefing from his home in Britain.

Boumediene was the lead plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case of 2008, Boumediene v. Bush, in which the court affirmed that Guantànamo detainees have the right to file writs of habeas corpus in U.S. federal courts. He was released on May 15, 2009.

As a child, Omar Deghayes settled with his family in Britain as a refugee from Libya. Picked up in Pakistan and sent to Bagram and Guantánamo, he was blinded in one eye at the base in 2004. Deghayes was released from Guantanamo to Britain on Dec. 19, 2007.

Detainee lawyers and human rights activists from the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) spoke of “Obama’s Guantánamo”, addressing issues including “the continued and worsening lack of transparency, resettlement for men who cannot return to their home countries, the threat of indefinite detention schemes in the U.S., and the halt of transfers to Yemen and related responses to the recent terrorism attempt.”

CCR attorney Shayana Kadidal told IPS, “Right now, more than half of the detainees at Guantanamo – over 130 of the 198 left – are cleared for release, having spent eight years in detention. The most helpful thing President Obama can say now about the prison is simply that it is full of men who never should have been there in the first place.”

He said failure to admit error was “a hallmark of the [George W.] Bush administration”, adding, “Obama’s failure to announce what everyone elsewhere in the world already understands – that men are wrongfully detained at Gitmo – has allowed his opponents to claim that the men left are ‘suspected terrorists’ representing the ‘hard core’ of the original population.”

“Those claims are absurd but they serve to create resistance to resettling – at home and abroad – detainees who need asylum from home countries that torture, to sending innocent men back to Yemen because of the wrongful acts of others in that country, and to bringing the cases of the few who will be prosecuted into the federal courts for that purpose,” Kadidal said.

“Obama’s failure to assert leadership by countering the other side’s misinformation and clearly saying that we have made mistakes in detaining men at Guantanamo has allowed the other side to spread misinformation and set the agenda, and has done incalculable damage to his efforts to close Guantanamo,” he declared.

Frida Berrigan, a Brooklyn, New York organiser with a group known as Witness Against Torture (WAT), said, “I do not relish the idea of fasting. But President Obama’s promises of change have atrophied into empty rhetoric. Our Fast and Vigil for Justice is a small attempt to answer the ultimate question Guantánamo poses: how do we conquer fear and remain human?”

Earlier, WAT members held a rally in front of the White House to protest the lack of progress toward justice for detainees since Obama took office and demanded “true change” from the administration.

The ACLU lawsuit against on behalf Col. Morris Davis accuses the Library of Congress of violating Davis’s rights of free speech and due process. The complaint says, “Col. Davis now brings this Complaint for violation of his First and Fifth Amendment rights, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, including reinstatement to his Assistant Director position, and damages.”

Aden Fine, staff attorney with the ACLU First Amendment Working Group, told IPS, “Col. Davis has a right to inform the public about his personal views on these issues of immense public concern, and the public has a First Amendment right to hear those opinions. The Library’s actions in firing him for expressing those views in public violate the First Amendment and should not be permitted.”

The ACLU wrote to the Library of Congress in December seeking Davis’s reinstatement. The Library denied the request.

Col. Davis, a United States Air Force officer and lawyer, served as the third chief prosecutor in the Guántanamo military commissions. He resigned from the position and retired from active duty in October 2008.

In resigning, Morris said that the trials were “rigged from the start”. He charged that the process had been manipulated by Bush administration appointees to foreclose the possibility of acquittal.

Davis submitted his resignation on Oct. 4, 2007, just hours after he was informed that Pentagon General Counsel William Haynes had been put above him in the commissions’ chain of command. “Everyone has opinions,” Davis says. “But when he was put above me, his opinions became orders.”

On Guantanamo’s eighth anniversary, 198 prisoners are still being held there. President Obama has released 42 men since taking office on Jan. 20, 2009, but has already admitted that he will miss his self-imposed deadline for the prison’s closure on Jan. 22.

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