Last week, a man designated as Detainee 838 was released from the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo and sent to a non-Muslim country that agreed to take him in. For Shawqi Awad Balzuhair, 35, the release was the end of a Kafkaesque ordeal that saw him scooped up in the frenzied aftermath of 9/11 and held in captivity for 14 years. He was never charged with committing a crime.
Mr. Balzuhair was among a series of detainees once labeled “forever prisoners,” those considered so dangerous that they could never be released. But in recent years, the authorities reviewing his case did an about-face. They decided that his capture and prolonged detention was just a big mistake. He was merely a “low-level fighter” trying to get home to Yemen at the time of his Sept, 11, 2002 capture in Pakistan, they said, and cleared him for release.
The Cape Verde Islands, a largely Catholic country and former Portuguese colony off the coast of northwest Africa, offered to resettle the Yemeni. By Sunday, Mr. Balzuhair was gone, having spent virtually his entire adult life penned up at the remote island prison in the Caribbean because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
His is just one more sad story from Guantánamo out of dozens that involve men who were wrongly seized, wrongly held behind bars for years, then quietly released. As long as the Guantánamo prison stays open, it will remain a symbol of the great injustice that was committed in the name of keeping America safe.
Far more troubling than the symbolism, however, is the actual damage done to the tradition of civil liberties and the notion of justice and fair play that Guantánamo represents — and what it means for the future. Individuals can be seized on distant battlefields — or, as in the case of Mr. Balzuhair and others, off the battlefield — and held for years. Without charges. Without trial. Without the same level of du-process protection that even the most heinous criminals are granted in a U.S. courtroom. Upon release, many are resettled in countries whose language, customs and culture they are unfamiliar with.
None of this is right. Guantánamo should have been closed a long time ago. President Obama promised to do it but has been stymied by an obstinate and feckless Congress.
Mr. Obama managed to whittle down the prison population to 59, with 20 of those cleared for resettlement when a suitable country is found. The remaining number, if all those green-lighted for release are indeed soon gone, would make it harder than ever to justify the vast supporting apparatus and cost required to keep the prison open. The president won’t be able to keep his promise, but he’s made progress.
It could soon be reversed, however, and therein lies the most troubling prospect of all.
An impulsive president-elect who displays little regard for the Constitution is waiting in the wings. He has promised to keep this prison open and “load it up with some bad dudes.” Nobody knows what that means, but nothing can be ruled out.
All the detainees at Guantánamo have been non-U.S. citizens. But once the government is given free rein to ignore the rules because of the legal distinction of citizenship, how long before that line, too, is crossed?
Maybe that can’t happen here, but it’s just one more reason that Americans would be better off if Guantánamo had been closed long ago. Sadly, all bets are off.