On the eve of the 12th anniversary since the first detainees arrived at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, activists in Chicago demanded that the federal government close the facility and end indefinite detentions.
About 40 organizers with the Chicago Coalition to Shut Down Guantanamo took part in the demonstration, which was held outside of the Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse Friday evening. It was one among many national and international protests held over the weekend to urge President Barack Obama to keep his 2008 pledge to shut down Guantanamo, which took in its first prisoners on January 11, 2002.
“It’s the opinion of our coalition and many other people around the world that the camp never should have been opened, and that it’s been very counterproductive in terms of ensuring the security of the United States,” said Bob Palmer with the Chicago Coalition to Shut Down Guantanamo. “It’s been shown that of the several hundred people who have been imprisoned there over the last 12 years that only a handful of them have been either recommended for trial, charged or convicted.”
Activists on Friday wore orange jumpsuits and black hoods over their heads to symbolize the uniforms worn by Guantanamo prisoners. They held signs that read, “Force feeding is torture” and “I’m still waiting for Obama to sign my release.” Members of the Overpass Light Brigade’s Chicago branch also toted an illuminated sign that said “Close GITMO,” while others read aloud the names of those still imprisoned at the detention camp.
Of the 155 prisoners currently at Guantanamo, 77 individuals have been cleared for release. Palmer said most of the prisoners cleared for release have been at Guantanamo for 12 years without any charges being brought against them. Click through for video of the protest and more from Palmer.
During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to close Guantanamo. Shortly after being sworn into office in 2009, Obama signed an executive order to close the facility within a year’s time. His promise ultimately turned to inaction, however, due to roadblocks from Congress and what activists say is a lack of political will from the president.
But at the end of April last year, Obama renewed his pledge to shut down the facility. Activists believe the hunger strikes at Guantanamo that started last February, which at its peak over the summer included 106 participants, was what forced the president to renew his vow to close the detention camp. Organizers say the hunger strike, which has led to some prisoners being forced fed to stay alive, is still underway. As of December 3, however, the U.S. military stopped publicly disclosing the number of hunger strikers at the facility.
Some of the protesters expressed optimistism about Guantanamo's future because 11 prisoners have been released from the detention camp since last August. And in December, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which relaxed the restrictions on transferring prisoners form Guantanamo to other countries.
But Kelly Hayes with the Overpass Light Brigade’s Chicago chapter said it’s time for Obama to keep his word and close the camp for good.
“(Obama) has done a lot to cause people on the left to lose faith in him, and I think this is one of the most primary examples,” she stressed. “He is not representing in office the values that got him elected. He has not brought hope. He has not brought change. He has not closed Gitmo, and if before he leaves office he wants to prove that he actually embodies any of the values that he espoused to get elected, he needs to shut down this facility. No more excuses.”
Mario Venegas with the Illinois Coalition Against Torture, who handed out pamphlets about the prison to those passing by the courthouse, said he and other local activists have been holding similar weekly Guantanamo vigils and protests in Chicago since last April. Venegas, who is originally from Chile, is involved with the effort to close Guantanamo because he knows “what it means to be in camps like this.”
In the 1970s, Venegas was confined and tortured for more than two years in a detention camp under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.
“I know people (who) have been tortured, so that’s why I’m here to try to educate people with this campaign, because a lot of people here in the U.S. are not really informed,” he said. “They don’t know what’s going on in Guantanamo.”
Hayes explained that the campaign to close Guantanamo also “speaks loudly to a larger problem in the United States.”
“We do not see the torture that comes from imprisonment,” she stressed. “We do not appreciate what we do to our own prisoners here in the states, and we certainly don’t take time to think about what we’re doing to people we call enemy combatants who we treat as less than human.”
As the nation marks Guantanamo’s 12th anniversary, it’s also a time for Americans to reflect on “the people who are denied justice here in the United States, people who are wasting away in solitary confinement and are suffering other forms of torture within our own borders,” Hayes added.