How many people have to die before Obama takes personal responsibility for Guantanamo?

"I will go back at this," the President claimed. But when? While he wrings his hands and blames Congress, men who have been denied justice are protesting in the only way they can - refusing to eat.

I am sitting at Guantánamo, looking at something my clients here have in twelve years never viewed: the sea. It is my last day here. This morning one of my hungerstriking clients, Shaker Aamer, refused to come out. This, apparently, is because the camp powers are trying their hardest to break the men’s strike. First was the Camp VI block raid, after which every man was locked in isolation and stripped of his main emotional anchor – his fellow prisoners. The second tactic seems to be to subject each prisoners to such indignities if he wishes to speak to his lawyer that he will conclude that the conversation is just not worth the groping.  Outright censorship looks bad when your motto is "Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent"; so, the authorities have concluded, best to engineer a situation where it looks as if the prisoners "voluntarily" do not come out.

Shaker was not the first to refuse. Another hungerstriking client refused for the same reason yesterday. As I waited for him, in one of Gitmo’s daily ironies, guards in the sally port chit-chatted idly about their favourite foods and US restaurants for forty-five continuous minutes. Which is better; Olive Garden, or Red Lobster? And the lobster itself: delicious, or disgusting bug-like crustacean?

If those guards had ever looked these 130 starving men in the eye and seen their humanity, they showed no sign of it. But I don’t blame them; they are bored young soldiers, perhaps trapped, in their posts, although not as trapped my clients are. Defence officials have proclaimed this strike is a plaintive attention grab. To those who believe this even for a second I say: try not eating for a day. Or two. Then tell me that to starve yourself for over 120 days, as my clients now have, reveals anything other than abject desperation. 

My clients cannot believe President Obama would really have forgotten them and his promise to them at the beginning of his term.  My client Nabil’s jaw drops when I explain that yes, Obama really did close the State Department office that was meant to get cleared men like you out earlier this year – and no, it wasn’t because he assigned some other official to help you. Today, Nabil seems to be no one’s responsibility. 

Obama, when a journalist finally coaxed him into making a public statement about the hunger strike, was tight-lipped and embarrassed – having decided not to do nothing for the 166 souls here for the remainder of his presidency. "I will go back at this," he said. How? When? With more hand-wringing about Congress? The starving men are unimpressed. His later speech was long on rhetoric and short on detail, while Senators have urged him to use the power he already has to send men home.

It is impossible to overstate how devastating Obama’s indifference is to a desperate man. My clients live in a bubble. A concrete, razor-wired bubble, but one in which the tiniest scrap of information takes on enormous significance. Wild rumors of release – to Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait, anywhere – echo around the blocks for months, even years. For they have nothing else to sustain them.

I tried to explain to poor Nabil that in a way, President Obama lived in a bubble too. He must have forgotten all of you, I said, because a wall of White House bureaucrats shoved your suffering out of his sight, kept you at the bottom of his pile. Men in the White House wholike Greg Craig, who tried to keep Obama’s much-repeated promise to free you? Those men were edged out by Rahm Emanuel. Craig lost his job. Obama spent the majority of his first term in an echo chamber consisting mainly of people who insisted that political expediency demanded leaving my clients here to die.

Today, my task is to make my clients real to Barack Obama. The military makes this as difficult as possible, by robbing the men of their two greatest assets: their voices, and their faces. Two journalists at the base with me were furious because a haunting photo they took of a very hungry man was deleted by camp authorities. The ostensible reason for this was to protect his privacy – the real reason, of course, is that with the face of a suffering man comes empathy.

Much the same thing happened a few weeks ago, when the New York Times published an op-ed based on a telephone call between me and my client. Within hours I had journalists ringing saying "military sources" claimed I broke some rule. I sighed, and explain that a government censor was on a call, that we had done such things many times before, and that no rule had been violated. The only rule I broke was an unspoken one: Never Make the Prisoner Human.

How many more humans will have to die before Barack Obama takes personal responsibility for this prison? Stop blaming Congress. Enough excuses. My clients say they will start to eat if – and only if – cleared men start to go home. 

Cori Crider is Strategic Director at Reprieve. She is also an attorney for Reprieve's clients in Guantanamo

A view over Guantanamo Bay. Photograph: Getty Images

Cori Crider is Strategic Director at Reprieve. She is also an attorney for Reprieve's clients in Guantanamo.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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