WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama used the occasion of his State of the Union address to remind the world of his quest to close the prison camps at Guantanamo — in as much a vow as a plea to the members of Congress.
“With the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay,” Obama said in the address Tuesday night.
Obama ordered his administration to empty the prison camps in the first year of his first term, by Jan 22, 2010. But Congress steadily thwarted that ambition by imposing escalating restrictions on transfers and blocking civilian trials of the captives.
The president drew applause as he mentioned closing the prison camps — which now hold 155 captives — in the foreign-policy and defense portion of his annual address to Congress that declared “America must move off a permanent war footing.”
“We counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action,” Obama said, “but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world.”
In March, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly blamed Obama’s omission of Guantanamo in his 2013 State of the Union address as one reason for igniting the nearly year-long hunger strike that eventually engulfed more than 100 captives at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.
Kelly has oversight of the detention center as commander of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command. He has since tried to keep the prison hunger strike out of the news by characterizing it as a “hunger-strike lite” and then imposing a blackout on hunger strike figures.
His spokesmen argued that daily disclosure had alternately become an unspecified security problem or a nuisance for the 2,000 U.S. military troops and Defense Department civilian contractors at the sprawling prison camp compound where 77 of the 155 foreign captives are approved for transfer or release, with security guarantees.
Before Kelly’s gag order, 15 captives were refusing to eat at the prison, according to an official U.S. military tally. All 15 were given nasogastric feedings by Navy medics, if they refused to drink a can of Ensure.
Wednesday, a lawyer for some of the prisoners estimated that 25 were recently on hunger strike, based on recent letters and phone calls from the captives.
“It’s currently 16 being tube fed and nine more publicly hunger striking,” said attorney Clive Stafford Smith whose London-based Reprieve legal organization represents Guantanamo detainees. “Several others are doing it secretively, as the detainees have been thinking that many people will be going home soon, so they did not want the authorities to know.”
Hunger strikers are locked alone in their cells for long stretches of the day rather than allowed group meals and prayer. Prison commanders call this “single-cell confinement” and the captives’ lawyers call it “solitary confinement.”
The Obama administration had at one point planned to bring some Guantanamo detainees to trial in federal courts, and others to detention in special lockups. But Congress forbids the transfer of any Guantanamo prisoner to U.S. soil for any purpose and has blocked the use of federal funds for a domestic lockup.
Just six of the 155 captives are being put on trial at the Navy base’s war court, inside a crude compound called Camp Justice. Five, led by alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, are accused of conspiring with the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. The sixth is Saudi Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of masterminding the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole warship that killed 17 U.S. service members.
All six could face military execution, if convicted. All six were held for years in secret CIA prisons, out of reach of the International Committee of the Red Cross, before they got to Guantanamo in 2006.