Forgotten but not gone

Forgotten but not gone

If governments around the world want the legal black hole of Guantلnamo Bay to end, they need to take responsibility for those still held there

Guanatnamo Bay has slipped down the agenda. Controversial from the moment the first “war on terror” prisoners were flown there in January 2002, it has seen allegations of torture and mistreatment, numerous legal challenges, suicides, releases, and fresh prisoners arrive. And throughout it all a running commentary of heated criticism has been met by steadfast defence from the US administration.

Guantلnamo has been one of the world”s most divisive issues. About 270 prisoners are still held, but this is the lowest number since its first few months and well down on the 680 detainees incarcerated at its height. The US government is not talking of holding onto most of its reduced prisoner population either – in fact it”s said that trials are planned for as few as 60-80. The rest appear to be heading for release.

So, if the place is withering on the vine what am I doing in Washington arguing for its closure? Why not wait for the inevitable to happen?

But, since when has complacency about unresolved injustice ever acceptable? The Guantلnamo detentions have always been indefensible, an affront to universally accepted standards of law, due process and justice. Camp X-Ray and its successor prisons have been unworthy of the great democracy of the United States.

Guantلnamo is an affront to the generations of Americans that have fought for liberty, democracy and the values of the US constitution. The same can be said for the practice of secret “black site” detentions and “extraordinary rendition” flights. They haven”t made the US or the rest of the world safer – but they have damaged US standing in the world.

That”s why I”m here in the US as part of an Amnesty International delegation meeting US officials and presenting Congress with a petition calling for Guantلnamo”s closure signed by over 1,200 parliamentarians around the world.

But we should be careful not to preach to American politicians and officials. Some still sincerely believe that they had little choice but to take drastic measures after the unprecedented horrors of September 11. The urge to grandstand would be pointless and it”s not what brought me to Washington. Bin Laden and his followers don”t just reject common international legal and cultural values; they despise them and aim to eliminate them. Fair trials? No, they prefer summary beheadings. Recognition of difference and dialogue? No, they advocate rigid, bitter and violent absolutism.

In the face of a common threat, American and European politicians agree about a great deal, but some of the differences are profound.

President Bush has repeatedly said he wants Guantلnamo to close. The US does not, it is said, want to be the “world”s jailer”. It has said it wants help in resolving Guantلnamo, particularly in respect of detainees who are “stateless” or who cannot safely go back to countries which they”ve already fled as refugees.

This is where governments – including the UK government – can make a difference. There are two things they can do.

First, governments can make immediate arrangements for any of their nationals or habitual residents to be repatriated. Many in the US administration have, with justification, bemoaned the fact that nations have been quick to judge but slow to offer practical help.

It is a poor reflection on us that governments such as our own have sat on their hands and been so reluctant to accept British nationals and residents back from Guantلnamo. My Lib Dem colleagues Sarah Teather and Ed Davey both had to fight tooth and nail to get help for Jamil el-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi, UK residents who were marooned at Guantلnamo.

Another particularly disturbing case is that of Murat Kurnaz, a German citizen of Turkish origin who was “cleared for release” years before his eventual liberation in 2007, yet Berlin refused to cooperate with the US military authorities while Murat languished.

Meanwhile, our own government has recognised the need to end Guantلnamo, but has done little to secure the fair trial or release of Binyam Mohammed, Shaker Aamer or Ahmed Errachidi, three of our former residents.

And the second practical measure? The international community should put in place arrangements for the safe removal of prisoners who cannot return to their home countries. This will include refugees or other particular groups – for example the Uighurs from China – who are unable to go home but need a place of safety and a way out of the legal limbo of Guantلnamo.

If we wait long enough, then Guantلnamo will eventually close its gates. We may even find out about the “black site” prisons and rendition flights. The 44th president, whether Barack Obama, John McCain or Hillary Clinton, could move to end Guantلnamo relatively quickly.

But without international cooperation it could be months or even years before its gates are shut once and for all.

We can”t leave it all to the US