GLOBAL JOURNALIST: What should happen to Guantanamo prisoners?

Friday, February 19, 2010 | 2:09 p.m. CST; updated 10:11 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism: The day after he took office more than a year ago, President Obama promised the nation and the world that he would close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in one year. That deadline is past and the prison is still a long way from shutting down. The problems for President Obama in this country are legal, political, economic and diplomatic. The problems of some of the captives are in many cases a matter of heart-rending tragedy. Take the Uighurs from China, for example. They are a dissident Chinese Muslim group, and 17 or 18 of them left their homes in the Xinjiang Province in Northwestern China to seek freedom in the Western world early in this decade. They made their way to Afghanistan in the hope of getting to Turkey but shortly after 9/11 some bounty hunters denounced them to American forces as terrorists and the bounty hunters collected $5,000 for each person they turned in. The Uighurs were sent to Guantanamo where, after several years, the Bush administration decided they were being wrongfully held. But they could not be sent home again. They would have been prosecuted and perhaps executed by the Chinese as subversives. There was a plan to send them to suburban Washington D.C. where there is a large Uighur community but few Americans wanted that to happen. So the group has been split up and sent around the world. Six have gone to the Pacific Island of Palau where the U.S. government paid $100,000 each for their resettlement. There are plenty of other problems about Guantanamo that have not yet been resolved. Let’s start with Scott Horton. His article in the March 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine, "The Guantanamo Suicides,", indicates a serious cover-up of alleged murders that started in the Bush administration and continued into the Obama administration, and it looks like, as far as the United States government is concerned, the case is closed. Tell us a little about this.

Scott Horton, contributing editor, Harper’s Magazine; New York: I started looking into this case on the basis of documents surrounding deaths that the government had described as suicides. I was able with some people to piece together exactly how the government believed they died. It was completely incredible in the sense of not believable. After I did a television appearance talking about this I was contacted by a soldier who was on guard duty that evening. They all told quite consistent tales that were essentially that the government official version of these deaths was without any doubt false, and that these three prisoners had been removed from their cells that evening and taken to a secret detention facility. And when they returned from that facility, they were dead.

Loory: Is the case closed or is there more that can be done to keep it going?

Horton: The investigation conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and it was conducted after the Bush administration, announced in Washington that they died as a result of committing suicide. The Obama Justice Department apprised of all this information only days after Obama was sworn in, and concluded not to open a criminal investigation. But is the story over? Well, I think there are a lot of people in Congress who think not. I would be very surprised if we did not have Congressional hearings looking into this in the near future.

Loory: What can you tell us about the Omar Khadr case and how that is being handled?

Ranjan K. Agarwal, associate, Bennett Jones Law Firm; Toronto: Omar Khadr was arrested in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old. He was transferred to Bagram Airbase and then eventually to Guantanamo Bay. He is a Canadian citizen. At that time, our government sent representatives to Guantanamo Bay to interview Mr. Khadr in order to obtain information from him for intelligence purposes. The arrangement that was made with the U.S. officials was that this information obtained by our security forces would be used for our intelligence-gathering purposes and would not be necessarily used in the prosecution of Mr. Khadr, either by civilian court or by a military commission. Mr. Khadr launched an application in our federal court which made its way up to the Supreme Court alleging that his interrogation by Canadian officials was unlawful according to our Canadian Charter. Our Supreme Court agreed with him. Yesterday, the Canadian government asked the Americans to ensure that any information provided as a result of these interrogations was not used in this prosecution.

Loory: What was Khadr doing in Afghanistan at such a tender age?

Agarwal: It is alleged that the Khadr family had ties to the al-Qaida network and that Khadr himself had been trained by members of al-Qaida. The allegations against him are that he committed war crimes in Afghanistan and more specifically that he launched a grenade that ended up killing a U.S. CIA officer.

Loory: He denies that?

Agarwal: It is unknown what the status is. As you know of Guantanamo Bay, it is very difficult to get information as to what defenses are being raised. I would presume that he is denying that or alternatively he is taking the position that his treatment at the hands of the Americans either in Bagram or Guantanamo Bay should override any prosecution.

Loory: Albania and Switzerland are two of several countries around the world that have agreed to take prisoners from Guantanamo into custody. That will be some help to President Obama in getting Guantanamo closed. Many other countries have refused to do it. Why have Albania and Switzerland done it?

Philippe Mottaz, director, World Radio Geneva; Geneva, Switzerland: I think I would say it was gingerly accepted to take the two Uighurs. At some point the justice minister here came to the cantons, the equivalent of the states, and said, would you be willing to contribute to help the Obama administration close Gitmo by accepting a few detainees? One canton, Jura, said it would do so because of our humanitarian tradition. But then when it was known that it was the two Uighurs brothers, Switzerland was caught in the middle of a dilemma – either accept the Uighurs brothers and face diplomatic tensions with China or refuse the Uighurs and further endanger a good relationship with the U.S.

Loory: The “Uighur brothers” is a very interesting situation. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Mottaz: What we have been told by the authorities is that one of them is mentally ill and has requested that he be sent abroad with his brother because he cannot function and operate in society without his brother.

Loory: Tell us why Albania got involved in this.

Besar Likmeta, editor, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network; Tirane, Albania: The Albanian’s decision to take in Uighurs basically is based on foreign policy. The United States administration as the main sponsor of Albania into NATO and also because the Bush administration and Clinton administration helped Kosovo gain independence and with the NATO bombings of 1996, and the declaration of independence in 2008, so basically for Albania it was a foregone conclusion to accept the Uighurs.

Loory: Along with Switzerland and Albania, countries like Bermuda, Spain and Palau have all agreed to accept Uighurs. Can you tell us anything about detainees from other countries who have been sent abroad?

Horton: I think there is one big stumbling block in Guantanamo right now and that is Yemen. We have a large number of Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo, and they have essentially been cleared for release and return because we have no meaningful data that links them to any terrorist group,  but the Bush administration and the Obama administration have very difficult relations with the government in Yemen. As a result, there has been a lot of pressure brought to bear on the government not to release them.

Loory: Why is it that we cannot move these prisoners to a prison in the United States?

Horton: I have spoken quite recently with defense department experts on this. They still hope that they will be able to move them to the Illinois prison but this has been blocked aggressively by Republicans in Congress who have sought to defund any relocation program and they picked up some support from some Democrats as well. We’re really talking about a partisan issue domestically.

Loory: So you think that Guantanamo may still be closed as a prison?

Horton: I think it is likely that detainee operations at Guantanamo will be brought to a conclusion before the end of the year. That is certainly what the Gates Pentagon would like to do. That is what the Obama White House is resolved to do, and the only question is whether Republicans can maneuver successfully in Congress to block it, to stop it from implementation.

Loory: What is the impact of the failure to close Guantanamo in one year on President Obama’s reputation in Europe?

Mottaz: I think it is quite minimal at this point. There is a growing awareness of how difficult it is to close Guantanamo in such a short time span and that is not an issue.

Loory: Tell us about the relationship between Albania and China and how the acceptance of the Uighurs has impacted that?

Likmeta: Albania had a traditional relationship during the former Communist regime with Maoist China, which lasted up until the late 70s. It is an important trading partner. The Albanian government has accepted more prisoners but not any more Uighurs because it doesn’t want to jeopardize its relationship with China.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Melissa Ulbricht, Tim Wall and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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