Commentary: Obama shouldn’t squander opportunity to transfer all 76 cleared detainees out of Guantanamo in 2014

SOURCE: Jenny Jiang

This year marks the 12th anniversary of Guantanamo. This year also presents President Barack Obama with a window of opportunity to transfer all of the 76 detainees cleared for release to other countries and take a significant step towards fulfilling his promise to close Guantanamo. 

About half – 76 – of the 155 remaining Guantanamo detainees have been cleared for transfer to their home country or another country by a high-level military, intelligence, and law enforcement task force since 2010.

But for the past three years, transfers out of Guantanamo have been severely impeded due to restrictions imposed by Congress and Obama’s unwillingness to expend political capital to push for their release prior to his re-election.

However, the tide began to shift last year when more than 100 detainees held hunger strikes to protest their indefinite detention without charge or trial.

The hunger strikes – and the military’s decision to force-feed the detainees in violation of international medical ethics – pressured the President to finally do something about closing Guantanamo.

In May, Obama announced that he would lift his moratorium prohibiting the return of cleared detainees to Yemen and appoint two high-level envoys – Paul Lewis at the Pentagon and Clifford Sloan at the State Department – to facilitate the release of cleared detainees and to expedite the closure of Guantanamo.

Read more: Commentary: Abdulmutallab’s arrest sealed fate of Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo

The lifting of the Yemen transfer ban – imposed after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man recruited in Yemen, tried to blow up a Detroit-bound flight using an underwear bomb – would go a long way in helping to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo. Of the 76 men cleared for release, 56 of them are from Yemen, and they have been languishing in Guantanamo for the past three years due to Obama’s transfer moratorium.

The passage of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 also removed a significant obstacle to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo. Section 1035 of the NDAA, signed by Obama in late December, eased some of the restrictions to allow the President to transfer detainees who have completed their sentences or have been determined to no longer pose a threat to U.S. national security.

Read more: Senate & House reach compromise on Gitmo detainee transfer provisions in 2014 NDAA

“Congress has been persuaded after a long, long struggle to tone down its restrictions on the release of prisoners so that President Obama is in the best position he’s been in for three years to order men to be put on planes and sent home,” noted Andy Worthington, an independent investigative journalist and author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. “It’s in his hands.”

The easing of Congressional restrictions and Obama’s decision to lift the ban on detainee transfers to Yemen mean that the administration has few reasons for not transferring all 76 cleared detainees out of Guantanamo by the end of this year. The President should not squander this precious window of opportunity to take a big step towards closing Guantanamo.

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