South Africa could offer a lifeline to freed Guantanamo detainees

Tariq Ba-Odah has been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay for 13 years, without charge or trial, since the age of 23. He was cleared for release by a multiagency review board in 2009, but legal wrangling, politicking and general timidity on the part of United States President Barack Obama’s administration have prevented his release.

Having spent the best years of his life in indefinite detention and under torture, Ba-Odah is now a 36-year-old man who has been on hunger strike in protest against his treatment for eight years, and is close to death.

He has suffered brutal force-feeding, a process so cruel that the World Medical Association has banned doctors from administering it. Ba-Odah’s lawyers recently filed a petition for habeas corpus, citing the US government’s legal obligations to free seriously ill prisoners.

But last week, US justice department lawyers opposed the application. Officials said this was because there was no deal in place to relocate Ba-Odah, although a spokesperson said the administration “was absolutely determined to generate transfer opportunities for each of the detainees currently approved for transfer”. While the world watches in silence at these egregious delays, Ba-Odah has dropped to 35kg and his internal organs are beginning to digest themselves.

The US is sitting with a predicament: the detainees cleared for release from Guantánamo carry with them narratives of torture that in courts of law around the world can, and would, make for damning evidence against the George W Bush and Obama administrations. These narratives, despite cleared detainees carrying the unwarranted stigma of being labelled “terrorists”, simply refuse to die.

The treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo has epitomised a complete breakdown in the rule of law. The US Senate’s Report on Torture revealed some of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” against Muslim prisoners in the wake of 9/11. It detailed sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours, positional torture, threats to family members and mock executions.

Prisoners were kept in tiny, dark cells, sometimes plagued by biting insects, and when they refused to eat in protest, they were force-fed either through the nose or the rectum. According to the Senate report, rectal exams were conducted with “excessive force”. At least one prisoner was diagnosed with anal fissures, chronic haemorrhoids and “symptomatic rectal prolapse”. In other words, rape.

They were also given extremely heavy doses of the antimalarial drug Mefloquine to induce psychotic effects. These gruesome revelations came against the backdrop of pronouncements by the Senate that these techniques never generated useful intelligence, nor did they prevent “terrorist” attacks.

As Obama’s second term draws to a close, pressure is mounting on him to close the facility – he signed an executive order promising its closure in 2009. It is a continuing source of motivation for political violence worldwide. Since 2002, 779 men, aged from 13 to 105, have been detained there outside any legal framework, fuelling groups such as the Islamic State.

Of the 116 men remaining at Guantánamo Bay, 52 have been cleared of any wrongdoing or alleged terrorist links. Now the US is blocking their return home, citing the “security situation” in their respective countries and, no doubt, an underlying fear of legal reprisals.

But there is hope. About 55 countries, including France, Italy, Germany, Albania, El Salvador, Uruguay, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Slovakia and Bulgaria, have accepted detainees for resettlement, with much success.

Now advocacy group Cage Africa, a branch of Cage in the United Kingdom, has submitted a formal request to South Africa’s departments of international relations and home affairs to urgently offer South Africa as a home for up to 11 of the cleared detainees remaining at Guantanamo Bay, most of them of Yemeni descent.

It costs more than $3-million a year to hold each detainee at Guantánamo. Their resettlement needs can therefore be met with funding from the US government, which has assisted with resettlements elsewhere, as well as some funding from our own government through the granting of political asylum. Failing this, Cage Africa has access to a pool of donor pledges that can already cover the resettlement of at least five men.

Concerns have been raised around the security risk that these men might pose to South Africans, but since they have been cleared of any wrongdoing or terrorist links, debates around recidivism are null and void.

In Britain, ex-detainees have re-united with their prison guards on national speaking tours whose narratives have mirrored the best elements of our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The stories have included accounts of torture, but forgiveness has characterised this process.

By accepting Cage Africa’s request to negotiate with the US, South Africa would once again be serving as an example of a country that is concerned about bringing about a more just and humane world – and, as in the case of Uruguay’s recent acceptance of cleared detainees, could well bring freedom more speedily to men like Ba-Odah, and offer them a lifeline.

Karen Jayes is a prize-winning author and a spokesperson for Cage Africa

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