WASHINGTON, D.C. – Free them or put them on trial. Thus urges a petition to U.S. President Barack Obama over the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, jailed and in limbo for more than a decade.
The petition launched by Guantanamo’s former chief military prosecutor Col. Morris Davis was signed by more than 137,400 people by late Sunday for the president to bring some kind of closure to the fate of the terror suspects at the U.S. prison on the eastern tip of Cuba.
Behind the walls of the prison on the arid hills of Guantanamo, the men lost in indefinite detention seek to draw attention to an unprecedented hunger strike a third of them are waging. On Monday, the hunger strike enters its fourth month.
Afghan prisoner Obaidullah echoed the sentiment of many of his fellow inmates when he said he was “losing all hope.” His testimony was declassified Friday.
“Eleven years of my life have been taken from me,” he said.
As of Friday, 100 of the “war on terror” suspects were observing the hunger strike, out of a total of 166, prison officials say.
Of them, 23 were being fed with tubes running down their noses and three were hospitalized even though their lives were not in danger, said prison spokesman Lt. Col. Samuel House.
Lawyers for the inmates say there are actually 130 hunger strikers, some of them refusing food since Feb. 6.
“One doesn’t need to do the math to know that some of the prisoners trying to kill themselves are not enemy combatants, or suspected terrorists or militants, or any of the phrases we turn to when we are scared and give up on courts,” The New Yorker magazine said in an editorial.
Of the prisoners still languishing at the U.S. military prison, more than half – 86 – have been cleared for release, some of them for the past five years.
Why have these men ended up in “no man’s land” in Cuba, as Obama put it on Tuesday?
Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer for 15 of the inmates, said many of the prisoners were captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan and “sold to the Americans for a reward.”
His clients include Shaker Aamer, a Briton who has been on hunger strike for 70 days, and jailed even though London has pledged to take him in.
“There is something fundamentally wrong with a system where not being charged with a war crime keeps you locked away indefinitely and a war crime conviction is your ticket home,” Davis said in his petition.
His petition drew 117,000 signatures in just 48 hours.
As Guantanamo’s top military prosecutor, Davis recalled that he himself charged the only three former inmates to be found guilty of war crimes and sent home to their countries.
That is just three of the 779 prisoners held at the U.S. prison over the past 11 years. Six others have been charged and now face proceedings before a military court.
Obama’s administration, and that of his predecessor George W. Bush, have cleared 86 of the inmates currently held at Guantanamo, finding them to be neither enemy combatants nor war criminals.
Of the remaining 80, about half cannot be tried for lack of evidence.
“At the bottom line, Guantanamo is just a massive, a massive failure,” said Smith.
One of Smith’s colleagues, Omar Farah, said it was time for Obama to correct “this horrible mistake” and “speak louder than the prisoners.”
Farah said he just returned from Guantanamo, where he was “stunned by how much my clients are resolved.”
“They have nothing to lose,” he told AFP. “They want to live, they want to live with freedom and dignity.” Some have spent more than a third of their lives there, Farah said.
Commander Walter Ruiz, a military defense lawyer, urged Obama to resolve the legal limbo at Guantanamo.
The president has failed to fulfill his vow to close the reviled detention center due to stiff domestic opposition to moving the prisoners to U..S soil for trial and incarceration, and to get foreign nations to accept detainees that have been cleared.
“We need to see more than words, we need concrete actions,” Ruiz said.