Skip to main content

'Mr. President, what should I tell cleared prisoners in Guantanamo?'

By Clive Stafford Smith, Attorney for 14 men in Guantanamo Bay, Special to CNN
updated 10:19 AM EST, Fri January 31, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An attorney for 14 men in Guantanamo Bay says Obama's broken promises have weighed heavily on all the detainees
  • Obama said -- again -- that this is the year he intends to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay
  • 50 percent of Guantanamo Bay inmates are told: "You are cleared to leave, but you cannot go," Clive Stafford Smith says

Editor's note: Clive Stafford Smith is the founder and Director of the London-based human rights charity Reprieve. He is attorney for 14 men in Guantanamo Bay. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- President Obama delivered his State of the Union address and said -- again -- that this is the year he intends to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. As President, he has promised this before, first in his inaugural address in January 2009 and then periodically reiterated over the years.

As I write this, I am en route to the prison that Amnesty International once dubbed the "Guantanamo Gulag."

One might quibble over the term, but the profile of the place is extraordinary. When I first went there in 2004, I expected to find "the worst of the worst" terrorists in the world, as then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had promised.

Clive Stafford Smith
Clive Stafford Smith

Instead, I was hard-pressed to find people who were America's enemies. The Pentagon has effectively conceded this -- 624 men have long since been set free, and 77 of the remaining 155 men have been cleared for release for at least four years, some for much longer. The majority of my clients have been cleared for release by the Obama administration's 2009 Task Force, which requires unanimous agreement by no fewer than 6 federal agencies including the FBI, the CIA, and the Departments of Defense and State.

There can be no other prison in the world where 50 percent of the inmates are told: "You are cleared to leave, but you cannot go."

I hope to visit five of my remaining clients, although some may not come to the meeting. All are depressed and (for the questionable privilege of seeing me) had to endure for a time what the military dubbed a "scrotum search" -- an intentionally humiliating exploration of the genital area, which is intended to deter prisoners from coming to a legal visit to complain about the conditions.

One person who will come out is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident there. Shaker does not like what he had to endure, but he told me recently that the procedure was ultimately more humiliating for the soldiers who must carry out such benighted orders. After all, who joined the proud U.S. military in order to become a "Scrotum Searcher, First Class?"

Obama confident in intelligence program
Exclusive: Obama's expectations lowered?
Obama on Sochi: I'd tell friends to go

He has been cleared since 2007, and hopes that it will not be too long before he can return to London, finally, to meet his youngest son Faris, who was born on the day Shaker arrived at Guantanamo Bay: Valentine's Day 2002.

Shaker is depressed. The President's broken promises have weighed heavily on all the detainees.

As anyone can understand, it is easier to endure the certainty of abuse than to oscillate between hope and despair.

The President is correct when he argues that Guantanamo is a recruiting sergeant for extremism. He is right to say that America loses credibility, and inspires disdain, when we fail to adhere to our principles. The President is also justified when he blames the Republicans for undermining his pledge to erase the blot of Guantanamo from the reputation of this country.

However, President Obama is arguably the most powerful person on the planet and his team should not promote the myth that the cleared prisoners cannot be set free -- Shaker could join his wife and four children in London tomorrow; those of us who have worked on the issue for 12 years can help ensure the smooth repatriation of others to their own homes and families.

Equally to the point, the most powerful man on Earth could tell the military to stop humiliating prisoners who want to talk to their lawyers, and to end the violent and torturous practice of force-feeding those who peacefully protest their indefinite detention by hunger-striking.

Over a 30-year career, I have visited most of the major prisons across the U.S. South, institutions that house death row or a maximum security unit, and none treats the prisoners as badly as Shaker suffers in Guantanamo Bay.

The President could also advise me what I am meant to say next week, when my clients inevitably ask me -- as they always do -- why they are still being held despite the multiple findings that they pose no threat and can be transferred out of the hell they are living daily.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Clive Stafford Smith.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:45 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Pakistan Taliban say the school attack was revenge for the killing of children in a military offensive -- but they are being pressed by defections to ISIS.
A group that claims it hacked Sony Pictures has posted a public threat against moviegoers who see Sony's "The Interview."
updated 9:43 PM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The gunman behind the deadly siege in Sydney this week was not on a security watch list, and Australia's Prime Minister wants to know why.
updated 4:48 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Bestselling author Marjorie Liu had set her sights on being a lawyer, but realized it wasn't what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
CNN's Matthew Chance looks into an HRW report saying Russia has "legalized discrimination against LGBT people."
updated 9:12 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
The Sydney siege has brought home some troubling truths to Australians. They are not immune to what are often called "lone-wolf" terror attacks.
updated 7:12 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
A social media campaign condemning Islamophobia under the hashtag #illridewithyou has taken off after Sydney hostage siege.
Bill Cosby has kept quiet as sexual assault allegations mounted against him, but his wife, Camille, finally spoke out in defense of her husband.
updated 6:44 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
China-bound AirAsia flight turns back to Bangkok after passenger throws water over crew member.
updated 5:26 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
It takes Nepalese eye doctor, Sanduk Ruit about five minutes to change someone's life.
updated 5:54 AM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
This epic journey crosses 13,000 kilometers, eight countries over 21 days. Find out where.
updated 7:53 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT