I had been hoping to hear from President Obama about the hunger strikes at Guantanamo Bay, which Friday reach their 100-day mark, and the barbaric forced feedings at the detention facility.
So I was relieved by his April 30 news conference, where he pronounced Guantanamo “not necessary to keep America safe,” “expensive,” “inefficient” and “a recruitment tool for extremists.” His most important remark was: “All of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this. Why are we doing this?”
Well, I have been asking that question for more than a decade, because every day Guantanamo remains open is another day my hopes are dashed of truly getting justice for my sister, Laura, and the other people killed on 9/11.
Laura’s murder devastated our family. But, partly because of what I knew about victims of violence in other places through the work of Amnesty International, I knew that our experience was not unprecedented.
In the long months afterward, what I expected from my government was that the attacks would be investigated in public proceedings, that accomplices would be tried publicly. I believed a commitment to truth and justice would undermine terrorists.
For me, Guantanamo violates almost every principle of the rule of law. Holding prisoners indefinitely without trial — and trying the few who have been charged, including the five accused 9/11 conspirators, before flawed military commissions — is not the kind of justice we should stand for.
Right now, before the hunger strikers start dying, America can reclaim some honor. We should begin by transferring the 86 detainees who were long ago cleared to leave. Obama can order this immediately because Congress gave the Defense Department waiver authority that allows transfers.
Remember: 779 detainees have been held at Guantanamo since 2002. Today, 166 remain. While nine have died in detention, the other 604 were transferred, most of them under President George W. Bush.
I met one of those fortunate enough to get out of Guantanamo — Omar Deghayes, a Libyan-born British resident seized in Pakistan in a case of mistaken identity. He was held at black sites then taken to Guantanamo, where he was tortured and blinded in one eye. It took his family nearly six years to win his freedom.
Today, he works with the Guantanamo Justice Centre in London to help those released from prisons associated with the war on terror to get medical and psychological help, find work and fight for justice for remaining detainees. Such efforts are a far better way to counter terrorism than to allow men like Shaker Aamer and dozens of others held without charge to become fuel for extremism.
Obama said he would examine every option. We must insist that he immediately direct Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to begin certifying transfers of detainees cleared to leave. If detainees cannot be sent to their home countries, we should engage in diplomacy to find alternatives.
Fewer than 40 men are reportedly eligible for prosecution; they should be tried in federal courts. The military commissions fall woefully short of American judicial standards. Hundreds of motions must be argued before trials can begin, mostly concerned with establishing procedures for handling evidence, calling expert witnesses and having defense attorneys meet clients. Only real courts can handle this process fairly.
Finally, we need to address the dozens of men the administration has said would be neither released nor tried — presumably because torture has irrevocably tainted the evidence. Obama must appoint an envoy to oversee the facility’s emptying and closure.
Terrorism’s torment looks the same wherever you find it. I knew this long before my sister Laura was killed as she managed a seminar in the Windows on the World restaurant. What can set us apart in the face of such evil is our principles. What has occurred at Guantanamo was never something I wanted done in my sister’s name.
Rockefeller is a documentary film producer.