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Leading human-rights groups accused President Barack Obama on Monday of not following through on a commitment to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the controversial U.S.-run military detention center in Cuba that has seen a mass hunger strike among its detainees in recent months.
In a letter to the president, 16 human-rights and civil-liberties organizations expressed deep concern that he has failed to fulfill commitments he made during a major counterterrorism speech earlier this year to tackle the issue of the prison, where the vast majority of inmates are being held without charge or prospects of release even though many have been cleared to be transferred or set free.
“More than four months have passed since you delivered your May 23, 2013, speech at the National Defense University, in which you recommitted the United States to the goal of closing the Guantanamo prison,” read the four-page letter, which was signed by such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Human Rights Watch.
“However, despite your personal commitment and engagement, the population at Guantanamo over the past four months has been reduced by only two detainees, moving only from 166 to 164. Of the detainees who remain, 84 were cleared for transfer by national security officials more than four years ago,” the letter added.
Obama said during the May speech that he would lift a moratorium on the transfer of prisoners to Yemen and ask the Department of Defense to designate a site on U.S. soil where military commissions could be held in an effort to begin the process of permanently closing the prison.
The hunger strike at the Guantanamo facility had been going on for more than three months when Obama weighed in. The timing was not coincidental. During a background-briefing call with reporters before the president’s speech, a senior administration official said it was news reports that highlighted the barbaric nature of force-feeding the prisoners that compelled the administration to revisit the issue.
“Is this who we are?” Obama said during his speech, referring to the force-feedings.
Some human-rights groups fear that the administration will again sideline its Guantanamo closure plans as the number of hunger-striking prisoners dwindles and no longer attracts global headlines. Zeke Johnson, a spokesman for Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera it was “deeply disappointing” that Obama had not made more progress on transferring prisoners out of Guantanamo since his national-security speech.
“Cleared detainees can be transferred under current law ... The president should direct his administration to move Guantanamo to the front burner, stand up to Congress’ fearmongering and get the job done,” Johnson said.
There has been minor progress. In late August the administration announced that two prisoners — Nabil Said Hadjarab, 34, and Mutia Sadiq Ahmad Sayyab, 37, who had been cleared for transfer for several years — were repatriated to Algeria after spending more than a decade locked up at Guantanamo. Those were the first transfers out of Guantanamo in a year.
And last week the Department of Justice took the unusual step of notifying a federal court that it would not fight the release of a mentally ill Sudanese prisoner, Ibrahim Idris, who also suffers from diabetes. Idris had been cleared for release since 2009, but could not be transferred home without a court order because he is from Sudan, which is a state sponsor of terrorism, his attorney, Jennifer Cowan, told Al Jazeera.
White House officials have insisted that they intend to move forward with repatriating other detainees, and the administration has pointed to progress on other fronts, signaling that it was serious about closing Guantanamo. Defense officials have begun to notify Guantanamo attorneys that the Periodic Review Board, which Obama established two years ago to review the cases of the prison’s indefinite detainees and determine whether they may be released, was finally getting to work. Those hearings are expected to begin later this year.
But the human-rights groups say gaps remain that are slowing the progress of transfers.
Obama noted in his May speech that he would name envoys at the State Department and Pentagon “whose sole responsibility will be to negotiate the transfer of detainees to third countries.” While the State Department position has been filled, the Pentagon position remains vacant.
“The problems caused by the lack of an envoy at the Defense Department have been compounded by the recent departure of the Pentagon head of detainee affairs and the absence of a permanent general counsel,” the groups’ letter said. “Vacancies in these critical positions have resulted in a leadership void within the Defense Department, which has delayed decisions and actions needed to reduce the population at Guantanamo by transferring cleared detainees to foreign countries that will respect their human rights.”
Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, told Al Jazeera, “The Department has nothing yet to announce” on the envoy position at the Pentagon.
Regarding progress on the transfer of prisoners, he said, “There have been ongoing talks with a number of countries for potential repatriation or resettlement of eligible detainees.”
“As with all diplomatic discussions, we simply do not discuss them until the transfer is complete — and only then if the diplomatic agreement allows for such discussions,” he said. “As for any alleged arrangements that may or may not be in the works with countries into which detainees in our charge could be transferred, this is among the most sensitive work in which we engage. We simply will never discuss issues like that.”
Obama has hinted that he still sees the issue as important. In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly last month, he signaled that he has not forgotten about Guantanamo. “We’re transferring detainees to other countries and trying terrorists in courts of law while working diligently to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay,” he said.
But Amnesty’s Johnson said the president’s rhetoric did not match the administration’s actions. “The shameful delay in transferring cleared detainees underscores the fear that President Obama's Guantanamo promises remain empty,” Johnson said.
One thing has not changed. Obama has blamed Congress for inaction, stating that lawmakers placed restrictions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — which Obama signed into law — that have made it impossible for the administration to transfer prisoners.
But in their letter, the rights groups argued that the NDAA restrictions could be bypassed in some cases by issuing national-security waivers. In the NDAA, Congress granted the president and the secretary of defense the authority to waive a certification requirement that prisoners will not engage in terrorism.
“Some administration officials have an exceedingly cramped view of that authority,” the groups wrote, noting that they reminded Obama last April that he had the authority to use the waivers. The groups conceded that transfer restrictions in the law “needlessly complicated some transfers” but said the secretary of defense could utilize a waiver provision on “the most onerous certification requirements if the government has taken steps to substantially mitigate risk.”
Caitlin Hayden, a White House national-security spokeswoman, was unavailable for comment over the weekend.