I fear that such death is near for many of the men held without charge or trial at Guantánamo Bay, including my client Djamel Ameziane, a refugee from Algeria who was sold to U.S. forces for a bounty and has been cleared for release repeatedly. The prison has already claimed the lives of nine men – more than have been convicted by military commission – in the 11 years since it opened as a law-free zone. Today, most of the 166 men who remain at Guantánamo are participating in a hunger strike, including 86 who are approved for transfer. It is not the first time they have assumed the only manner of control they retain over their own lives to protest the injustice of their detention, but this time is different. The men claim the strike began in response to intrusive cell searches and desecration of their Korans, harkening back to the dark days of 2003 when torture and abuse were policy at the prison camp, but it has escalated to a crisis that is all but irreversible now. 

The men do not debate philosophical questions about whether it is better “to be or not to be”; they have one purpose, and it is to die. They do not starve themselves to become martyrs for a political cause like Bobby Sands. They die because they are desperate to be free from Guantánamo, and they see no alternative to leaving in a coffin. As Marine General John Kelly recently testified before Congress, the men “had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed,” and “were devastated when the president backed off.” Transfers from Guantanamo have all but ceased in the last two and a half years. At the same time, decisions by the federal appeals court in Washington have eviscerated the right of detainees to challenge the legality of their detention in court. This contributed to the death of Adnan Latif, a Yemeni man who reportedly killed himself in despair last September after the Supreme Court refused to intervene and overturn a decision blocking his release, even though everyone knew he was innocent of any wrongdoing and had been cleared for release repeatedly. President Obama then signed into law a defense authorization bill (the NDAA) that renewed onerous restrictions on his ability to transfer men from Guantánamo regardless of their status. And earlier this year the State Department office responsible for closing the prison was itself shuttered. The promise to close Guantánamo is largely forgotten.   

How did we get here? How have we devolved to the point where a man like my client Mr. Ameziane, who the government acknowledged years ago there were no “military rationales” to continue to detain and who is easily resettleable in another country, must embrace death in order to be free? The Administration surely blames him and the other men for staging a publicity stunt (“asymmetric warfare,” in their jargon), or lawyers like me who represent these men for standing by them, or members of Congress for imposing unprecedented restrictions on transfers from Guantánamo. The administration blames everyone but the one person who is ultimately responsible: President Obama. Although Congress has meddled with the Executive’s ability to transfer detainees from military custody for the first time in our nation’s history in order to damage President Obama politically, he still has the power to resolve the human tragedy that continues to unfold at Guantánamo. He can appoint a senior government official to shepherd the closure of the prison, and vest that person with sufficient authority to resolve inter-agency squabbling and get the job done. And he should order the Defense Department to use the certification and waiver process established by Congress under the NDAA to resume transfers without delay.   

President Obama must act now before it is too late. Absent immediate, tangible progress toward the closure of Guantánamo, there is little doubt men will die. Responsibility for their deaths will be laid at his feet, never mind his best intentions or what might have been.

Dixon is a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, representing clients in federal court and before the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay.