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It's past time we close Guantanamo Bay, bring home Alaska Guardsmen

When President Obama first took office he pledged to resolve the Guantanamo detentions and close the facility by January 22, 2010. Instead, I read in the Anchorage Daily News last month that 53 Alaska National Guardsmen in the 761st Military Police Battalion at JBER were deployed to Guantanamo. We sent our soldiers away from their homes and families to guard the remaining 164 prisoners at Guantanamo. Over half of these detainees have been cleared for transfer yet many have been held for more than a decade in legal limbo.

Anchorage has been my home since 1992. As a human rights activist, I have learned to write letters to foreign heads of state on behalf of those who are being subjected to human right abuses like torture or being detained by the government without charge or trial. I have studied the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and how it forms the basis of International Human Rights Law. Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile.” I wrote to presidents and prime ministers of countries that violated the basic human rights of its citizens, never imagining that one day my own beloved home country would be committing some of the same human rights violations. “That sort of thing could never happen in the world’s greatest democracy,” I thought.

Then the unimaginable happened. September 11, 2001. The September 11 attacks were a crime against humanity. History has shown that individuals and governments behave their worst when they act out of fear. Somehow we -- the world’s greatest democracy -- used 9/11 as justification to throw the rights guaranteed in Article 9 out the window. We began arbitrarily arresting and detaining suspected terrorists, sending them not to the U.S. to stand trial, but to slowly rot in Guantanamo Bay without ever being convicted of a crime. The U.S. government claimed that it can hold people without charge or criminal trial under what it defines as a “global war” against al-Qaida and its associated groups. This isn't just about the rights of the detainees; it is also fundamentally about us. Have we become a country that no longer abides by the rule of law? Closing Guantanamo is about protecting everyone's right to a fair trial and about protecting our democracy and way of life.

Many of these prisoners have been on a hunger strike, protesting their indefinite detention, and have been force fed. One of the detainees our Guardsmen is likely guarding is Shaker Aamer, a husband and father of four children, and a British resident who is one of the dozens of detainees "cleared for transfer." He has been held at Guantanamo Bay since Feb. 14, 2002, and has yet to be charged for a crime. The British government has, on numerous occasions, called for him to be released and returned to the United Kingdom. Earlier this year, British Prime Minister David Cameron raised Aamer's case with President Obama at the G8 summit. Aamer is reportedly also one of the detainees being force-fed at the facility. Is that what our Guardsmen are being deployed to do? Do we really expect them to return to Alaska proud for having served their country by guarding a facility where prisoners who have never been charged with a crime are being subjected to forced feeding?

Now, our members of Congress have an opportunity to stand up for human rights, and bring our Alaska National Guardsmen home, by supporting the Guantanamo transfer provisions in the FY 14 National Defense Authorization Act (s.1197) as introduced by the Senate Armed Services Committee. All of our elected officials should support closure of the Guantanamo detention facility by ensuring that each detainee is either charged and fairly tried in the U.S. federal court, or released to a country that will respect his human rights.

It is time the United States reclaimed its place in the world as a country that respects human rights.

Kathy Harris is an Anchorage accountant and volunteers as a human rights activist with Amnesty International.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.