Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Frontline: “Forever Prisoners" (Guantánamo) (PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After American Masters: Maya Angelou PBS showed a Frontline episode about Guantánamo and its aftermath, “Forever Prisoners,” showing what happened to the last people who were detained there and got cleared for release under the final days of the Obama Administration before President Trump, who’d promised during the campaign to “keep Guantánamo open and fill it up with bad dudes,” took over. The show profiled a man named Mansour who had been picked up in Afghanistan at age 20 and was finally released after 15 years in detention — only because he was from Yemen and Yemen is in political chaos right now, the policies wouldn’t allow him to be repatriated to his homeland. He asked to be placed in an Arab country where he could at least have a fighting chance at assimilation — where he was familiar with the culture and spoke the language — but instead he got sent to Serbia, of all places, where the people there had nothing in common with him ethnically, culturally or linguistically. What’s more, in the 1990’s the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic had announced its intention of “ethnic cleansing” by killing off all the country’s Muslims, so Mansour already went there wondering just how welcome he would be and if he’d even be able to survive. He was living on resettlement money given to him by the U.S. and whatever he could scrape up, and at one point he was not only followed by Serbia’s secret police, he noticed three hidden cameras in his apartment filming him 24/7. He called the reporter in the U.S. who was covering the story and ripped out the bugs while he was filming the process on his smartphone, and when he took out the bugs a group of Serbian police came to his home, threatened him and confiscated his phone and laptop. (Fortunately the reporter was able to record the whole thing on his computer.) When those items were finally returned to him everything on his hard drives had been erased. The reporter later went back to Guantánamo and heard an inmate calling to him; the inmate turned out to be Mansour’s best friend, who unlike Mansour hadn’t been processed for release when Trump took over and canceled plans to release the remaining detainees — and indeed the prison camp is expanding as the people running it prepare for the expected onslaught of new detainees Trump promised during the campaign (and one thing we know about President Trump is that he’s bound and determined to fulfill every nasty, prejudicial, racist promise he made during the campaign: he may not be able to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. but he’s nonetheless going to do everything in his considerable power to make lives miserable for Latinos and Muslims in particular!).

The show also included a quite interesting mini-segment of how Guantánamo came to be used as a prison in the first place: it happened in 1991, a decade before the 9/11 attacks, when Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a military coup d’état and thousands of Haitians fled in leaky boats, hoping to make it to the U.S. and claim political asylum. The U.S. regarded this influx of Haitians as a threat and had the U.S. Navy intercept the boats in the Caribbean and make sure the refugees didn’t reach U.S. soil — and, desperate for a place to put them, they hit on the idea of interning them at Guantánamo and claiming that they couldn’t have attorneys or any real due process to handle their asylum claims. A group of students at Yale Law School took up their plight as a class project and eventually got their cases before a federal judge in New York, who ruled that they should be allowed to have their asylum claims adjudicated under U.S. law. There was a complication in that a number of the Haitian refugees tested HIV positive, and under the hateful Helms Amendment then in force all immigrants with HIV were banned from the U.S. At one point they were even told they would be held at Guantánamo until a cure for AIDS was discovered! The show interviewed the judge (an African-American who, if he ruled similarly under the Trump administration, would probably be denounced in a Trump tweet as a “so-called judge” — as I’ve argued before, it’s quite clear from Trump’s public statements that he doesn’t consider people of color to be full U.S. citizens and when he says he would have won the popular vote if it hadn’t been for millions of people voting “illegally,” it’s a plaint that people of color in this country are allowed to vote at all) and recounted the history that the U.S. government planned to appeal his decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Fearful that the Supreme Court, which had already rejected a case involving Haitian refugees on other grounds, would rule against them, the law students who had brought the case agreed to a settlement that the Haitian refugees would be allowed into the U.S. but the case would not stand as a precedent — which led to the George W. Bush administration being able to cite the Haitian detention as a precedent on their side and claim that Guantánamo was a “lawless” jurisdiction where the normal due-process rules of American law didn’t apply.