Grant Bayldon: Death should not be only way out of Guantanamo Bay

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Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Photo / AP
Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Photo / AP

The atmosphere in Guantanamo Bay is one of desperation. Many of the detainees have been imprisoned for more than 10 years in this abyss where the rule of law and fundamental human rights disappear.

Most of the men are being held without charge or trial, often captured under suspicion rather than fact, sometimes simply for the large bounties that the US was paying for "enemy combatants" in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These men have lost hope of ever being released; a fact so aptly demonstrated by more than 100 of the detainees on a hunger strike that began three months ago. They are starving themselves just to be heard and to be remembered.

At least 20 men are being force-fed to keep them alive, a practice condemned by Amnesty International and identified as a violation of medical ethics by the American Medical Association. Yet, in spite of the brutal treatment the detainees face in refusing to eat, the hunger strike will likely continue until something dramatically changes.

Should we be surprised that these detainees are protesting their situation? No matter the initial trigger for this hunger strike, there is no escaping the backdrop to it - detainees being held year after year after year with no indication of when, if ever, they will be released or brought to trial. Maybe we should be more surprised that something on this scale hasn't occurred sooner; after all, there's only so much a person can take before he'll try to reclaim his dignity.

Adnan Latif was imprisoned in Guantanamo in 2002. He was never charged with a crime, he was denied the right to make his case in a fair trial, put in solitary confinement and tortured. A judge ordered his release last year. He died at Guantanamo awaiting his freedom.

Nine detainees have died so far while waiting for release - the question that sits at the forefront of our minds is: how many more will die before action is taken?

One of the men reported to be on hunger strike is Yemeni national Musa'ab Al Madhwani. On March 26 his lawyers filed an emergency motion for "humanitarian and life-saving relief" in the US District Court.

Along with the motion, the lawyers filed a statement from the detainee himself, part of which said: "... I, and other men here at the prison, feel utterly hopeless. We are being detained indefinitely, without any criminal charges against us ... I have no reason to believe that I will ever leave this prison alive. It feels like death would be a better fate than living in these conditions. I am dying of grief and pain on a daily basis because of this indefinite detention ..."

Death shouldn't be the only way out of Guantanamo Bay. Of the 166 remaining detainees, 86 have been cleared for release, some more than six years ago.

But these men will continue to be held until a third country steps forward to offer them refuge, or until they die.

Many of the men cannot go home to their own countries for fear of being tortured and killed, and US law prevents them from being settled on American soil. Previously, this problem was overcome by governments successfully resettling detainees in over 30 countries including Australia, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

However, since 2010, not a single detainee has been transferred. This is despite the fact that in 2009, President Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay and signed an order to that effect.

There have been obstacles that have set Obama back in fulfilling this promise. But these are not insurmountable; there is an avenue for Obama to uphold his promise and for the US to meet its obligations under international law.

But the USA can't do it alone.

If these men are to have any hope of resettlement, governments in third countries, like New Zealand, need to step forward to help the Obama Administration close Guantanamo.

Carol Rosenberg, one of the leading journalists on Guantanamo Bay has said, "they need somebody to leave for the prisoners to regain the hope of the possibility of departure".

Let us, New Zealand, be the ones to break the stalemate that holds the lives of these men in peril. Let us take a detainee cleared for release and bring hope back to Guantanamo.

Grant Bayldon is the executive director of Amnesty International in New Zealand.

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