by Medea Benjamin and Alli McCracken
Over the weekend the government of Qatar brokered a dramatic deal between the US and the Taliban to swap five Guanta'namo prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier held as a prisoner of war for almost five years. Flexing his political clout, President Obama demonstrated his ability to navigate with ease through the Congressional obstacles in the way of releasing prisoners from Guanta'namo. Some House Republicans accused the President of breaking the law to get his way. But the Obama administration made it clear that the President had added a "signing statement" to the bill restricting the transfer of Guanta'namo detainees, saying that the restrictions violated his Constitutional prerogative.
Called "the hardest of the hardcore" by hawkish Republican Senator John McCain, the Guanta'namo prisoners released in the swap have been identified as high-level Taliban operatives. According to Human Rights Watch, one of those released, Mullah Norullah Nori, could be prosecuted for possible war crimes, including mass killings. All of the men were recommended for continued detention because of their "high-risk" status. Qatar has assured the US that the released men will be held and monitored in Qatar for at least a year, but some US officials are highly critical of the move, saying that the men are likely to return to their former positions within the Taliban.
If Obama is willing to take the risk with these "high-risk" prisoners, and if he really wants to close Guantanamo as he has claimed many times, why hasn't he been using his authority all along to release the 77 prisoners already cleared for release? Of the remaining 149 Gitmo prisoners, 77 were cleared by the President's Guanta'namo Review Task Force ---- meaning the US government has deemed them innocent or not a threat to Americans. But since President Obama's speech at the National Defense University in May of 2013, in which he reiterated his promise to close the detention facility, only 12 of these men have been transferred.
In his May 23 speech, the President also announced he was lifting a self-imposed ban on repatriating Yemeni prisoners, who represent the majority of remaining prisoners. Yet over one year later, not one Yemeni has been transferred. If finding a safe place to transfer prisoners is indeed a problem, President Obama could immediately accept the generous offer of Uruguay's President Mujica to take five men from Guanta'namo.
By releasing the five Guanta'namo prisoners without prior Congressional approval, President Obama has blown away the excuse that his hands are tied by Congress. He should use his authority to free all the cleared prisoners, such as the five below:
1. Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni national, has been detained at Guanta'namo since February 2002 and cleared for release since 2009. In February of 2007, he began the longest running hunger strike at Guantanamo that continues to this day. He is force-fed daily. He says his hunger strike is the only way that he has to communicate to those of us who have our freedom how barbaric it is to be put in a cell for a decade without charge.