WASHINGTON — Chants of "Guantanamo has got to go" echoed down Pennsylvania Avenue on Wednesday as a crowd of rain-dampened protesters marked the 10th anniversary of the arrival of the first 20 detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
More than 800 people demonstrated in what they said was solidarity with the 171 inmates who remain in the prison, as well as the unknown numbers detained at the U.S. military prison at Bagram, Afghanistan.
Protesters voiced anger with President Barack Obama's failure to close the prison — which he promised to do during his 2008 presidential campaign — and with his approval last month of the National Defense Authorization Act, which codified the U.S. government's authority to detain prisoners, including U.S. citizens, indefinitely without trial.
"President Obama is largely responsible for the failure to close Guantanamo, and his administration should not take its progressive base for granted," said Vincent Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group that represents some Guantanamo detainees.
"Guantanamo is one part of an illegal, inhumane and unjust global detention policy," Warren said. "Our message: 'No excuses, shut it down.'"
Protests by human rights groups also were planned across the country in Miami, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago, and around the world in cities such as Paris, Toronto, Madrid and Berlin.
In Washington, 171 people in orange jumpsuits and black hoods led a procession from Lafayette Park, across from the White House, to the Supreme Court. They represented the prisoners who continue to be held in legal limbo at Guantanamo years after the newly inaugurated Obama ordered the facility closed within 12 months.
No arrests were reported in the protest, which followed several smaller protests at the White House after Obama's Dec. 31 signing of the controversial defense act.
Earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed criticism that Obama had broken his campaign promise to close Guantanamo, saying that Obama's commitment to closing the facility is "as firm today as it was during the campaign."
"We all are aware of the obstacles to getting that done as quickly as the president wanted to get it done, what they were and the fact that they continued to persist," Carney said. "But the president's commitment hasn't changed at all. And it's the right thing to do for our national security interests."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an Air Force Reserve colonel and a military lawyer who's the only member of Congress to have served active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, is among those who argue that Guantanamo must be kept open for national security reasons. In an article in the National Review in November, Graham wrote that maintaining a detention facility where captured combatants could be held and interrogated was essential to the war against terrorism.
"Given the current political environment, Guantanamo Bay is — despite its problems — the best prison available in the War on Terror," Graham wrote.
One of the protesters in Washington on Wednesday was Eli Jackson, 28, who identified himself as a member of the Occupy movement from North Carolina. He said he was among 11 protesters arrested in front of the White House last month while protesting Obama's signature on the defense act.
"I do feel like (Guantanamo) needs to be closed down," Jackson said. "Just the fact that people are being detained indefinitely is something that I can't support."
Other protesters voiced skepticism of Obama's commitment to closing the prison.
"I grew up in Minnesota, and we were taught that we were a country of laws, but the people who are supposed to be enforcing laws, and our leaders, are violating them and torturing people," said Janice Ward, 60.
"We were supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, and now we're acting like a land of chickens," she said.
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