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Opening the floodgates

As Taoiseach Brian Cowen pledges to take in prisoners from the controversial detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Alex Court looks at what this means for Ireland, and explains why the vow should be supported.

In the Dáil on the 1st of this month, Brian Cowen repeated comments he made in the United States that Ireland will accept detainees from Guantanamo Bay. These comments have been warmly welcomed by most, with the loudest cries of support coming from human rights groups.

The detention centre, established by the George W. Bush administration in 2002, was created to deal with people deemed to be ‘enemy combatants’ – a term the current President Obama administration will no longer use to reference people held at the centre on Cuban soil. This facility once held 775 inmates, some of whom were less than 16-years-old. Many of these have since been released, leaving roughly 245 people in custody today.

These people are being held after President Obama’s executive order, made on 22nd January, to close the prison within a year. Progress is being made, but closing Guantanamo was always going to be a lengthy process.

Central to this closure process is deciding where the remaining detainees are going to live. Essentially, three options exist: send them back to their country of origin, send them to a third country, or send them to the US mainland to be tried in court there.

Some 60 detainees have already been tried in military court at Guantanamo and exonerated. Many of these can’t return home because their countries (like China) have poor human rights records and impose the death penalty. It is a small number from this group of former-inmates that the Taoiseach, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin and Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern will accept.

The problem with transferring detainees to the US to be tried is that many people held in Guantanamo are there based on evidence such as information extracted via coercion, which stands in a military court but not a civil one. Many are fittingly worried that if terrorists were brought to trial in US courts they would not be incarcerated even though ‘clear’ evidence exists against them. This has become a more pressing worry since it became clear that Mullah Abdul Kayum Zakir, who was released in 2008, has since joined Taliban high command and is now instrumental in counter-insurgency attacks in Afghanistan.

Significantly, Ireland’s attitude comes after Albania accepted five Chinese Uighur detainees in 2006, as authorities were concerned that China would torture them if they returned home.

Cowen’s argument in favour of accepting detainees is that “it is incumbent on us, those who called for [Guantanamo’s] closure, to assist the United States now in ensuring that certain prisoners be relocated elsewhere.” He has also responded to questions on how ex-detainees will be treated on Irish soil with the comment “obviously we will keep an eye on them very closely.”

While supporters have done well to appreciate the Taoiseach’s attitude, some say Ireland needs to accept detainees. Importantly, Noeleen Hartigan of Amnesty’s Irish branch has reminded the public of how Shannon Airport was used in 2003 as a “staging area for rendition operations” and has used this to say Ireland has an obligation to help in the closure of the camp.

It is clear that the camp needs to be closed with or without Irish help. The violations of human rights, which have happened there, have severely damaged America’s reputation, and has also sent a powerful global message justifying indiscriminate detention.

Most serious is the violation of Geneva Conventions. The third convention states that captured members of an armed force are entitled to Prisoner of War status, which includes rights to trial. In the case of Guantanamo, Taliban members are regular members of an armed force, but were denied trial after President Bush’s executive order in February 2002, which stated the Geneva Convention did not apply with respect to Guantanamo. While the American Supreme Court intervened on this matter in July 2006, it is still a shocking injustice that this was allowed to go on for so long.

Additionally, reports of ‘water-boarding’ have been confirmed by former CIA director Michael Hayden. This process of simulated drowning is internationally recognised as torture. The use of dogs and interrogation techniques like hooding and forced nudity, approved of by the then-Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, should never have been allowed to happen. As journalists and human rights campaigners were denied access to the camp, people – albeit some of whom had committed terrorist attacks – were mistreated. A voice opposed to the camp’s closure has arisen from people who lost lovedones in terrorist attacks. Some from this group say those who committed such attacks need to be kept away from society. While the grief this group has suffered may be incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it, the global repercussions of supporting an institution like Guantanamo cannot be trivialised.

America needs to assert itself on the world stage as a moral authority, and a force against human rights abuses – an impossible option if Guantanamo Bay operates as it did during the Bush years.

Let us hope that detainees arrive in Ireland and other countries smoothly, and Guantanamo Bay is closed for good before the 2010 deadline.