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Indefinite detentions at Guantanamo must stop - ex-US ambassador to Mexico

Guantanamo prisoners are presumed guilty even though the US cannot prove it, ex-congressman James Jones told RT, pressing for an end of the indefinite detentions in the notorious jail gripped by a hunger strike.

Guantanamo, America’s infamous prison camp at the US naval base in Cuba, has been under new media scrutiny since February as the hunger strike within the detention facility has been spreading. While the officials have admitted that one hundred of the 166 detainees have joined the action, their lawyers talk of at least 130 of those being involved.

What started as a protest against heavy-handed searches, has grown into an action against indefinite detentions. Over half of detainees have been cleared for release but cannot leave due to various administrative obstacles and fear to die in the prison.

The weakened state of the inmates has already led to the authorities force-feeding them through nasal tubes – a practice which was condemned by the UN’s human rights office as a form of torture.

The co-chair of the Task Force constitution project, former member of the Congress and ambassador to Mexico, James Jones, sat with RT to discuss the Guantanamo issue. He believes indefinite detentions should be stopped and that in the prison the US acts against own declared principles of justice.

Former US Ambassador to Mexico James R. Jones (Screenshot from RT video)

James R. Jones
Born in 1939, grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma
Received his B.A. degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1961
Graduated with a law degree (LLB) in 1964
Served briefly in the Army Counterintelligence Corps in 1964-1965
Began his practice of law in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1964
Served as the legislative assistant for Congressman Ed Edmondson in 1961-1964
Member of Congress (D-OK) in 1973-1987
Ambassador to Mexico in 1993-1997
Chairman of the World Affairs Councils of America in 2003
Started the Constitution Project's Guantanamo Task Force in December 2010

RT:President Obama at the very beginning of his presidency signed an executive order to stop torture. But human rights organizations say indefinite detention itself is torture. Is it fair to say that the Obama administration is engaged in torture now?

James Jones: I don’t think so. I think he made a lot of good moves when he came in the office. Our conclusion is doing things by executive order can be changed by the next president very easily. And so the kinds of protections, human rights protections that we are talking about should be done by the congress and should be part of the statutory – part of the laws of the United States – not just the executive order. Yes, it’s much better than it was. We still have some concerns about policy on the drones, for example, but the kinds of abuses that we found over the years since 9/11 do not seem to be practiced these days.

RT:What about indefinite detentions?

JJ: That’s the one our Task Force was unanimous. We do not believe that if fits into the laws and ethics and the values of America to have indefinite detention and to not allow a court of law and the adjudication of charges against a person to go through orderly passes. More than half of those detainees at Guantanamo currently have already been cleared by the US government. That means all the intelligence, the military, the law enforcement, and all the agencies involved have said there is no reason to hold these people. And they are still being indefinitely detained at Guantanamo.  We feel very strongly, that they are to be released and that should be done immediately. We are calling the president to tell his secretary of defense to issue that order to release them.

RT:Defense lawyers argue that even with the transfer restrictions in place the law even now allows for the administration to use wavers to release some of these men and yet those wavers are not being used. Why?

JJ: Probably politics comes into that. Everything that the loyal opposition wants to criticize the administration for being soft on terrorism and things like that, so, I think all those things go into the decision, I don’t know personally…

RT:What about being soft on the rule of law?

JJ: No, I agree with that. That’s our position that we should meticulously follow the rule of law, that’s what we preach all over the world, we preach our values, and we actually prosecuted similar cases against other countries, which have not followed what we say we are to do. We are not following and practicing what we are preaching. And I think that should be stopped. What I am saying is – this is a highly political thing. And the only reason I can figure out why the administration is not releasing those, for which they have no case whatsoever, is politics.

AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards

RT:Politics in what sense? Can you explain it?

JJ: Sometimes politics doesn’t make any sense. It’s the fear, that if you release some of these prisoners that have been accused of being terrorists in the past, and they do something else, or you find them going into terrorist organizations, you’ll pay a heavy political price for that. I think it has to be the only reason why they are not released.

RT:So, many of these men have fallen victim not just to their wrongful capture, but now to US politician assumptions of what they may or may not do. Do you think the US is acting on fears and assumptions rather than what’s lawful or not?

JJ: I don’t want to comment on what I believe the administration is recently doing, for what reason. But what we are trying to do in our task force, is to find those things we could either via interviews or public information ascertain is accurate. And what we found and what we concluded is that indefinite detention for these people – more than for half of those at Guantanamo should not continue.

RT:Do you think it’s a form of torture – indefinite detention itself?

JJ: I don’t know if there is a legal definition of that, but I think it’s been expressed by many ethicists, that to have indefinite detention with no prospects for being released is a form of torture and does lead to things like hunger strikes and things like that.

RT:Currently to defense lawyers it seems like a dead end. What will change the status quo in your opinion?

JJ: I think there are a couple of things. Number one – there are still legal processes that they can go through, and I think some of the legal defenses are being prepared at present time. The other - is just politics itself. The appeal to the better instincts of the United States, the appeal to our sense of values, to our sense of ethics.

RT:Who has to appeal?

JJ: I think you have to develop constituency for this. One of the reasons we put out this report and have disseminated it quite widely is for those organizations or people or leaders or politicians or public officials, who believe as we do, that we have a value system that has to be appalled, that they will get active in this and they will start creating a sense of “we have to do what’s right”. And that leads to political decisions that are going the right direction. Up until this point it’s been sort of covered up. We haven’t talked about it. All we talked about is the terrorism itself. Those, who’ve been detained, we assume – and this is again against our principles and against our legal history. We are presuming that they are guilty of something, even though we can’t prove it. And that’s just the absurd of what our rule of law says, that you are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

RT:This hunger strike do you think it will make a difference? 

JJ: It might. I obviously wished they didn’t have a hunger strike. It’s not only bad and has permanent damage to those who are participating in it. It damages the United States around the world and our reputation, but I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference or not.

RT:What if someone dies there?

JJ: I think it’s terrible, particularly for someone who has been pre-cleared by all of our government agencies and should have been released. I think that’s terrible black eye for the United States.

The Constitution Project is a non-profit think tank in the US that builds bipartisan consensus on significant constitutional and legal questions. The Constitution Project’s work is divided between two programs: the Rule of Law Program and the Criminal Justice Program. Each program houses bipartisan committees focused on specific constitutional issues. The Constitution Project has a Guantanamo Task Force committee that was started at the end of 2010.  James R. Jones is one of its eleven co-chairs. The Task Force project examines the federal government’s policies and actions related to the capture, detention and prosecution of suspected terrorists in US custody. It also seeks to provide the American people with information about indefinite detentions at Guantanamo of suspects captured by the U.S. government, as well as their past and current treatment there.

RT:The New York Times has recently published the plea of a Yemeni national, who’s been imprisoned at Guantanamo without chargers of any kind for more than eleven years. And here’s what he writes: “No one seriously thinks I am a threat, but still I am here. Years ago the military said I was a guard for Osama Bin Laden, but that was nonsense, like something out of American movies I used to watch. They don’t even seem to believe it anymore, but they don’t seem to care how long I sit here either. The only reason I am still here is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees to Yemen. This makes no sense, I am a human being, not a passport. And I deserve to be treated like one.” The New York Times, of course, deserves credit for publishing this letter of despair of this man. But it seems unless it’s on TV, unless it's part of the national discussion, national conversation, few will actually know and care about that. Why is it not a part of the national conversation?

JJ: Nobody is taking it on. That happened in the civil rights legislation. I was in the Johnson Whitehouse and it took many years before we were able to get a constituency says we have done wrong by African-American follow Americans. And we need to change that.

AFP Photo / John Moore

RT:But they were here. They were in the face. But those Guantanamo detainees are there and nobody seems to care about them.

JJ: I understand that. But you take undocumented immigrants. They were here, but nobody seemed to care about them until just recently - we are going to get an immigration bill. I think this going to be fair to the immigrants, who are here – both legally and illegally.

RT:They need to win votes. And those Guantanamo detainees are foreign nationals, who will not deliver political victories or any political scores.Nobody seems to be interested in that.

JJ: Well, what I am saying is until you highlight and publicize but spotlight the kinds of treatment they are getting, you are not going to have anything done. That happened in every movement in the US history. There have been injustices, then you first of all have to acknowledge the injustice, you then have to start developing a dialogue of the people of the US, who then demand political action to be taken to correct those injustices. I think that’s what’s going to happen here. But first of all you have to unveil it, you have to show what we have done was wrong.

RT:As far as renditions, a number of countries like Canada, apologized, offered compensations to former detainees, faced lawsuits, had to settle for millions of dollars for their secret services involvement in the renditions of those detainees. The UK is the example, why wouldn’t the US do that?

JJ: As I understand, we suspended some of the international treaties that President Reagan had actually proposed 25 years ago, the UN convention against torture and inhuman treatment, etc. In those particular legal documents you do have means of redressing the wrongs that were made. If we restore our adherence to those particular laws and treaties, there will be an ability to have injustices redressed.

RT: Something that I found very interesting. After all these rendition cases the UK Court of Appeals ruled that the government could not sort state secrets or use state secret evidence in its defense stating that “allegations of wrongdoing had to be heard in public”. But that’s the UK. And I want to ask you about the US. What kind of a message does it send when you pull out the state secrets card to shut down or all torture/abuse related lawsuits, but you sent to jail the person, who blew the whistle on torture?

JJ: We addressed that in a report to a certain degree, because, for example, Lithuania and Poland both were initiating investigations as to the black sites that were in those two countries. And whether there was torture and mistreatment of prisoners there, detainees there, and the US has not cooperated with that under the so-called state secrets umbrella. And we’ve suggested that we should cooperate with the countries there. And that’s one of the recommendations in our report.

RT:Not to use the state secrets card?

JJ: Yes and there are ways to cooperate and to give information harming either personnel under the state secrets doctrine, or our particular treaty relationships with other countries. But we are not cooperating at all, as I understand it.