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A Guantánamo detainee in your town? Two Massachusetts towns say "yes"

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Since the opening of the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign has stoked our fears of those held in the prison, who have been routinely referred to as the "Worst of the worst." After President Obama announced a plan to transfer Guantánamo prisoners to a prison within the U.S., the fear-mongering kicked into high gear and Congress capitulated, blocking funds for the transfer, based on the irrational belief that no prison could be secure enough to protect us from Guantánamo's super-terrorists.

But some towns are now shaking off the fear and fighting back against the fear-mongers with an unusual tactic: Town-hall resolutions that invite the Federal government to relocate a released Guantánamo detainee in their town.

The campaign, organized by No More Guantánamos, has been helped by recent findings that the vast majority of those held in the prison are in fact innocent victims who had nothing to do with terrorism.

Just two weeks ago, a Federal judge, after finding that "there is no persuasive evidence to justify his detention," ordered the release of Mohammed Hassen, a 27-year old Yemeni imprisoned by the U.S. without charges for 8 years. Hassen was the 36th detainee ordered released when a habeas corpus hearing found no evidence of ties to terrorism. As blogger Glenn Greenwald notes, 72% of the Guantánamo detainees offered a chance to challenge their imprisonment have been found innocent.

No More Guantánamos aims to tell the stories of Guantánamo's prisoners in order to "Transform prisoners' images in the U.S. from faceless, nameless 'terrorists' to human beings who deserve human rights and a presumption of innocence until proven guilty." In two towns in Massachusetts, Leverett and Amherst, these public education campaigns have been so successful that resolutions calling for local resettlement of released Guantánamo prisoners have won passage in town-hall meetings. The Leverett resolution, noting that "many detainees at Guantánamo have been cleared by our government of wrongdoing and have been determined to pose no threat to the United States" and "many of these detainees cannot be repatriated because they are either stateless or fear the harm awaiting them if returned to their home country" urges Congress to "repeal the ban on releasing cleared detainees into the United States" and "Welcomes such cleared detainees into our community as soon as the ban is lifted."

Who are the detainees that the people of Leverett and Amherst hope to welcome into their communities? Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a former top aide to Colin Powell, President Bush's Secretary of State, recently answered this question in a written statement in support of a lawsuit filed by one Guantánamo detainee. Wilkerson says that the majority of detainees -- children as young as 12 and men as old as 93 -- never saw a US soldier when they were captured. He said that many were turned over by Afghans and Pakistanis for up to $5,000. Little or no evidence was produced as to why they had been taken.
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No More Guantánamos (NMG) encourages activists to start with a local "kickoff meeting" to discuss the plight of Guantánamo's many innocent detainees and to introduce the idea of resettlement. After that initial step, NMG assists local groups in identifying a prisoner, finding information, telling his story, and even writing to the prisoner about their efforts. After sufficient public-education work, local activists may choose to move on to a town-hall or city-council resolution requesting resettlement of a freed Guantánamo prisoner.

What could life be like for a Guantánamo detainee newly resettled in your town? The experience of Uyghur detainees resettled to Palau and Bermuda offers one example. The Uyghurs, a persecuted ethnic and religious minority in their home country of China, came to Afghanistan in search of work, and were rounded up and sold to U.S. military officials by Afghan warlords working with the U.S. After eight years of imprisonment, the U.S. government admitted that the Uyghurs had no ties to terrorism and were no threat to the United States, but repatriation to their home country of China was not possible, given the risk of persecution by Chinese authorities. The Obama administration eventually worked out arrangements with Palau, a tiny island republic in the south Pacific, and Bermuda to relocate some of the Uyghur prisoners. Khalil Mamut, one of four Uyghur prisoners relocated to Bermuda, says, of his first year in his new home, "It has been a wonderful year. A year ago we were in Guantánamo Bay but this year, praise be to God, we are here. We have a lot of friends -- some Muslims, some Christians -- and they treat us as if we are Bermudian."

Get started on your own No More Guantánamos campaign here...
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Steve Burns is Program Director of Wisconsin Network of Peace a Justice, a coalition of more than 160 groups that work for peace, social justice and environmental sustainability.

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