End indefinite detention now

Members heard compelling testimony from experts on how Guantanamo undermines the U.S. commitment to the rule of law, weakens national security and runs contrary to our country’s global leadership in upholding international human rights standards.

In written testimony, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) addressed the human rights implications of indefinite detention of prisoners held at Guantanamo. The continued indefinite detention of individuals at Guantanamo – some of whom have been held over 11 years without being charged or tried – is inconsistent with U.S. treaty obligations and constitutional principles.

Indefinite detention is an unlawful practice that rises to the level of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in direct violation of U.S. laws and our obligations under international laws, including the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed by the United States 25 years ago during President Reagan’s final year in office.

Placing prisoners in custody indefinitely without charge or trial has absolutely no place in our laws. As Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said during the hearing, “Countries that champion the rule of law and human rights do not lock away prisoners indefinitely without charge or trial.”

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We oppose indefinite detention on behalf of torture survivors, because among those we care for are survivors who have suffered while being imprisoned without charge or trial and without being told when, if ever, they might be released.

From our experience healing survivors of torture and war related atrocities, we know indefinite detention causes severe, prolonged and harmful health and mental health problems for those imprisoned. Our intensive work with individual torture survivors, combined with medical literature that documents the damaging physical and psychological effects of indefinite detention, causes us to oppose this practice. For example, research by Physicians for Human Rights has found that the effects of indefinite detention include depression and suicide; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; and damage to the body’s immune, cardiovascular and central nervous systems.

Many of the survivors we serve who were imprisoned without trial or charge speak of the absolute despair they felt, never knowing if their detention would come to an end. CVT clinicians who work with survivors of torture that have been indefinitely detained tell us that with no defined end, survivors feel there is no guarantee there will ever be an end. This creates severe, chronic emotional distress: hopelessness, debilitation, uncertainty, and powerlessness.

The hunger strike among the detainees at Guantanamo underscores the despair among prisoners facing indefinite detention. Hunger strikes are a form of expression by individuals who have no other way of making their demands known.

The president should put an end to indefinite detention at Guantanamo right now by using his existing authority to transfer the remaining prisoners or charge them in a civilian criminal court.  By doing so, he will be one giant step closer to fulfilling his oft-repeated promise to close Guantanamo. 

Congress should do its part and pass the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014, which includes provisions ending or lowering barriers on transferring all detainees from Guantanamo.

Durbin concluded the hearing by saying he was sorry it has been so long since the last hearing on Guantanamo. He added that, if Guantanamo continues to be open, there will be another hearing soon.

Let us hope for the sake of our country’s role as a leader and defender of human rights and dignity around the world, this hearing will not happen and Guantanamo is shuttered for good and indefinite detention along with it.

Goering is executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, an international nongovernmental organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota and dedicated to healing survivors of torture and war-related atrocities.

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