Amid Hunger Strike, Obama Renews Push to Close Cuba Prison

Published on the New York Times NYT, by CHARLIE SAVAGE, April 30, 2013.

WASHINGTON — President Obama said on Tuesday that he would recommit himself to closing the Guantánamo Bay prison, a goal that he all but abandoned in the face of Congressional opposition in his first term and that faces steep challenges now.

“It’s not sustainable,” Mr. Obama said at a White House news conference. “The notion that we’re going to keep 100 individuals in no man’s land in perpetuity,” he added, makes no sense. “All of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this? Why are we doing this?”  

Describing the prison in Cuba as a waste of taxpayer money that has had a damaging effect on American foreign policy, Mr. Obama said he would try again to persuade Congress to lift restrictions on transferring inmates. He also said he had ordered a review of “everything that we can do administratively.”

But there is no indication that Mr. Obama’s proposal to close the prison, as he vowed to do upon taking office in 2009 after criticizing it during the presidential campaign, has become any more popular. Mr. Obama remarked that “it’s a hard case to make” because “it’s easy to demagogue the issue.”

The plan for Guantánamo he proposed – moving any remaining prisoners to a Supermax-style prison in Illinois – was blocked by Congress, which barred any further transfers of detainees onto domestic soil. A spokesman for Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and one of the leading opponents of closing the prison, said on Tuesday that “there is wide, bipartisan opposition in Congress to the president’s goal of moving those terrorists to American cities and towns.”

Mr. Obama made his remarks following the arrival at the prison of more than three dozen Navy nurses, corpsmen and specialists to help deal with a mass hunger strike by inmates, many of whom have been held for over 11 years without trial. As of Tuesday, 100 of the 166 prisoners were officially deemed to be participating, with 21 now being force-fed a nutritional supplement through tubes inserted in their noses.

“I don’t want these individuals to die,” Mr. Obama said … //

… The military’s response to the hunger strike has revived complaints by medical ethics groups that say doctors should not force-feed prisoners who decide not to eat, reviving a similar clash over Guantánamo detainees from the Bush administration.

Last week, the president of the American Medical Association, Dr. Jeremy A. Lazarus, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel saying that any doctor who participated in forcing a prisoner to eat against his will was violating “core ethical values of the medical profession.”

“Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions,” Dr. Lazarus wrote.

Ramzi Kassem, a City University of New York law professor who represents several detainees, said he had talked last week to a Yemeni client, Moath Hamza Ahmed al-Alwi, who said a guard had shot him with rubber-coated pellets at close range during the raid.

Since then, Mr. Kassem said he had been told, the prisoners have been denied soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste and their legal papers. A client told him, he said, that he had not eaten in 80 days and that he had stopped drinking after the raid and was now being force-fed twice a day after being tied to a restraint chair.

He quoted Mr. Alwi as saying: “I do not want to kill myself. My religion prohibits suicide. But I will not eat or drink until I die, if necessary, to protest the injustice of this place. We want to get out of this place.”

Mr. Obama’s remarks about the prison came in an otherwise sedate news conference, and at times he appeared almost anguished.

“This is a lingering problem that is not going to get better,” he said. “It’s going to get worse. It’s going to fester.”
(full text including hyper links).

Links:

Obama renews vow to close Guantanamo detention camp, on Reuters, by Matt Spetalnick, May 1, 2013;

President Obama must make closing Guantanamo a priority, on Washington Post, by Editorial Board, May 1, 2013.

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