We are only into February, and already it is obvious that my client in Guantánamo can throw out his calendar for 2013. No need to go through the exercise of crossing off each passing day, week, and month, hoping that tomorrow might be the day he is finally released. No, forget about 2013, I will tell him. This isn’t your year.
I represent Ali Hussein Al Shaaban, a 30-year-old Syrian national who has spent the last decade in the US prison camp at Guantánamo. This, despite the fact that Ali is one of 86 detainees cleared for transfer since 2009 as a result of a unanimous decision made by the US national security apparatus.
The first blow to Ali’s release came in early January when President Obama signed the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which contained a number of provisions to prevent the closure of Guantánamo, including language that has made it virtually impossible for cleared detainees like Ali to be transferred. The president was urged by human rights organizations to follow through on his veto threat so as to fulfill his promise to close the prison. But for the second year in a row, Obama failed to exercise his veto and instead signed the bill into law.
Then came word that Ambassador Dan Fried was being reassigned, and his post as special envoy for the closure of Guantánamo Bay would be closed. Fried’s main responsibility had been lobbying foreign governments to consider accepting cleared detainees for resettlement. After I had spent years trying to persuade the Irish government to accept my first client, an Uzbek, for resettlement, it was Fried who came in and closed the deal.
The fact that the Obama administration has reassigned Fried, abolished his office, and given the Guantánamo portfolio to the State Department legal adviser, who probably has a full plate already, tells you all you need to know about how far the closing of Guantánamo has slipped as a priority for this administration.
And now we hear from Senator Harry Reid that “it’s nobody’s fault” that the US prison at Guantánamo remains open. Respectfully, he need only look in the mirror and recall his comments from 2009 when he said “we will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States,” as if that was what the president was suggesting. It was not. Rather, the administration was attempting to resettle two Uighur detainees in Northern Virginia who were the living embodiment of Guantánamo’s indiscriminate “wrong place, wrong time” mode of capture. They were not terrorists, but Republicans in Congress had a field day with this, and as the Obama administration bungled its response, the prospect of closing Guantánamo began its inexorable fade into the political abyss.
Lost in the political blame game is the human cost of the president’s broken promise to close Guantánamo. My client has spent the entire decade of his twenties locked behind bars, without charge or trial. He could leave tomorrow, but for the restrictions on transfer in the NDAA and the lack of a new country to call home. Unfortunately, Ali is one of many detainees who cannot be safely repatriated for fear of persecution. Not that he has any interest in ever returning to Syria, even if President Bashar Assad should fall. “Have you seen what’s going on in Egypt?” he responds when asked about repatriation. “If you think that is bad, Syria will only be worse.”
No, Ali only wants the chance to re-start his life in a new country where he can be free and live in peace. After stealing a decade of this man’s life, you would think the least we could do for Ali and the other 85 men cleared for transfer is to let them out of Guantánamo so they can get on with their lives.