The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught “You see, if there is one place on earth that is most un-G dly, it is prison. In prison a person is stripped of that which makes him uniquely human: his freedom. For this reason there is no punishment of jail in Jewish law.” This is even truer when one never experienced a fair trial yet is subject to isolation and torture.
The Guantánamo Bay prison (sometimes abbreviated as GTMO and known as “Gitmo”) has been in operation since shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. While at first people believed that the prison, which is located in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, would be filled with dangerous terrorists awaiting trial, the increasingly evident reality is that it houses people stuck in a legal loophole that allows them to be held indefinitely without being charged with a crime, under conditions that the International Red Cross has characterized as “tantamount to torture.” Even the United States government admits that 92 percent of the prisoners never fought for al-Qaeda, and that 86 percent were turned over as a result of corrupt and generous bounty offers made by members of the American military to villagers in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Statistics compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union reveal an alarming abuse of rights and freedoms, with the overwhelming majority of prisoners not being a threat to national security:
• 779 prisoners have been stationed at Guantánamo
• 532 prisoners were released under the Bush administration, and 72 under the Obama administration; of 166 prisoners remaining, 86 were cleared for release in 2009
• Of 21 children imprisoned at Guantánamo, the youngest was 13; Yasser Talal Al Zahrani was imprisoned at 16 and became the youngest apparent suicide at age 21
• The oldest prisoner was 98 years old
• The U. S. government acknowledges that there was no evidence against 46 of the prisoners still being held in 2012, but maintained that they should not be released because they “represent a threat”
• More than 200 FBI agents have reported that Guantánamo prisoners were abused; in addition, at least 26 prisoners were initially tortured at secret overseas jails and then shipped to Guantánamo
Here are three examples showing how there is not even a pretense of legal procedures at Guantánamo.
1) Lakhdar Boumediene, a Bosnian citizen who lived and worked there for the Red Crescent, was arrested but found innocent of being an al-Qaeda operative. After his acquittal, acting on the word of an unnamed informant who was judged even then to be unreliable, the Americans kidnapped Boumediene and transported him to Guantánamo, where he was imprisoned for more than 7 years. He was beaten, kept in uncomfortable positions for hours at a time, exposed to extreme temperatures, and deprived of sleep. He went on a hunger strike and was force-fed for 2 years. After a Supreme Court challenge, a federal court found there was no evidence to hold him, and he was finally released in 2008. He now lives in France with his family.
2) The Road to Guantánamo is a 2006 British docudrama that tells the story of three British citizens who were in Pakistan at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. They were swept up by the Allied forces and sent to Guantánamo, where they were held without charges and under brutal conditions for 2 years before finally being released.
3) The lack of accountability and due legal procedure has even extended to American citizens. James Yee, a West Point graduate whose grandparents came to America from China in the 1920s and later converted to Islam, became a Muslim Army chaplain and volunteered to serve in the Guantánamo prison. On September 10, 2003, when returning to America on leave, he was detained and then arrested, held for 76 days in solitary confinement, and then publicly accused of and charged with a battery of moral and political offenses that included being an al-Qaeda agent and a “Chinese Taliban.” It took Captain Yee until March 19, 2004 to receive a dismissal of his court martial charges, and until April 14, 2004 to successfully appeal and remove the charges from his record. Even so, as he wrote in For G-d and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, “Since my case was dismissed, nobody has taken responsibility for what happened to me. Nobody has explained what went wrong or why.” He was not even asked to leave the service. After he left voluntarily, Captain Yee did not receive the items taken from him when he was arrested, and later learned that he was still under surveillance.
The continuing history of the infamous Gitmo, the longest operating wartime prison in U. S. history, is a story of political pandering. With enough evidence to warrant a trial for barely two dozen prisoners, President Obama signed an executive order to close the prison in 2009, but since then congressional opposition has prevented the President from sending any prisoners to American prisons or courts for trial. Even though the Government Accountability Office concluded that transferring these prisoners could be done safely (and 500 terrorism suspects have been tried in federal courts since September 2001), Congressional intransigence continues. Typical of the intensely paranoid rhetoric is the statement from Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who warned against any attempt to “bring these crazy bastards that want to kill us all to the United States." Congress passed legislation in 2009 that prevented the President from bringing any of these prisoners to the United States for trial, or even send them to other countries. Two of the original 48 stuck in a legal no-man’s land (no evidence against, but for other reasons cannot be released) have already died in prison. President Obama has decided that no prisoner will be sent to “unsettled” areas such as Yemen, but the United States has also not allowed arrangements for prisoners to go to other countries until the situation becomes settled. Thus, they are subject to indefinite imprisonment without charges.
Meanwhile, the horrors of Guantánamo continue. During the past several weeks, Guantánamo detainees have gone on a hunger strike to protest conditions and the detention center’s continued existence. Dozens of the 166 prisoners continue to be held despite having been cleared for release. We must continue our efforts to close Guantánamo.
Marine Corps General John Kelly, the head of U.S. military forces in Latin America, said the Guantánamo prisoners began the hunger strike because "they had great optimism that Guantánamo would be closed. They were devastated apparently ... when the president backed off, at least (that's) their perception, of closing the facility."
Lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) who represent the detainees said that the detainees have decided to hunger strike because of “the crushing reality that after 11 years in indefinite detention, there is no end in sight to their suffering.”
Here’s what you can do:
• Write to President Obama and the Congress and tell them again that they need to close Guantánamo now.
• Participate in Witness Against Torture fasts and vigils—click here for more information.
We cannot be silent in the face of this ongoing tragedy.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, the Founder and C.E.O. of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” In 2012 and 2013, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."