My Turn: Mr. President, close Guantánamo Bay Prison

  • In this Nov. 21, 2013, file photo reviewed by the U.S. military, dawn arrives at the now closed Camp X-Ray, which was used as the first detention facility for al-Qaida and Taliban militants who were captured after the Sept. 11 attacks at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba.  AP FILE PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK

Published: 1/5/2021 4:05:58 PM
Modified: 1/5/2021 4:05:48 PM

Nineteen years ago, on Jan. 11, 2002, the first 20 of nearly 800 prisoners were brought to the U.S. Naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba for the purpose of confining them there indefinitely, without trial. The Bush administration chose Guantánamo as a legal gray zone whose inmates, they believed, could not challenge their imprisonment.

In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled otherwise. For that reason and others, including U.S. and international outrage over the detainees’ mistreatment, President George W. Bush eventually released more than 500 of the detainees.

President Barack Obama initially proposed closing the Guantanamo prison, a goal which was unfortunately never realized. He did, though, release an additional 197 prisoners. President Donald Trump similarly failed to fulfill his own, very different, pledge-to fill the prison with “bad dudes.” But he did release one additional prisoner to finish his sentence in his home country.

We call on President-elect Joe Biden to finally close Guantánamo Bay prison, as he has signaled that he wants to do. There are many good reasons to do so. Among them are the following:

Guantanamo is a waste of money. The prison has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $6 billion to date. Current annual operating costs work out to $13 million for each of its 40 remaining prisoners. Because of the site’s isolation, 1,800 troops are assigned to guard the prisoners and to handle its numerous facilities for the prisoners and for the troops. Troops and all supplies must be shipped from the mainland.

Guantanamo denies justice both to detainees and families of 9/11 victims. Of the 40 remaining prisoners: six have been cleared for release, most for more than a decade; nine have been charged at military commissions, but still never tried; and 25 will never be charged but, according to our government, will also never be released.

Despite more than a decade of work and millions of dollars spent to try the five men charged with planning the 9/11 hijackings, trial dates have not been set. Among the causes for the delays are the inadmissibility of evidence derived through torture and the resignations of defense attorneys, who reasonably fear their meetings with their clients have been and will continue to be spied upon.

By contrast, federal civilian criminal courts have been much more successful. Since 9-11, military commissions at Guantanamo have produced only eight convictions (three overturned) while our independent federal courts have convicted more than 660 people on terrorism-related charges

The age and poor health of the prisoners make their continued detention without trial purposeless. The prison is becoming a nursing home. Its oldest inmate, Saifullah Paracha, is 73 years old with a history of coronary artery disease and diabetes. He has never been charged with a crime. Ahmed Rabbani, an ethnic Burmese Rohingya who drove a taxi in Karachi, recently wrote a column explaining why he has been on hunger strike and has lost half his weight. At the time of his writing, he weighed just 82 pounds, despite being force-fed twice a day. Many of the prisoners suffer physical and mental illness stemming from their torture, mistreatment, and endless imprisonment.

The Guantanamo detentions are counterproductive. Regardless of its mission, Guantánamo has failed to protect the U.S. and its troops from terrorism. Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other groups have used the prison as a recruiting tool. U.S. allies have already accepted most of the prisoners to help the U.S. close the prison despite their taxpayers’ opposition that none of the prisoners have been transferred to U.S. soil.

The Guantanamo detentions are and always have been illegal and immoral. Our Constitution and basic principles of political morality forbid our government from imprisoning people indefinitely without charge or trial. Until we close it, the Guantanamo prison will stand as a deep affront to our most fundamental values.

On March 5 of this year, the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s Appeals Chamber reversed a previous decision and will now permit an ICC investigation into alleged war crimes by the U.S. military and the CIA, including the torture program to which several current Guantánamo prisoners were subjected. President Trump’s reaction has been to sue the ICC.

We ask President-elect Biden to take the opposite approach. He should recognize that Guantánamo Bay Prison has failed to make Americans safer and has imposed grave legal moral and financial costs on our country. He should close the prison, release all detainees who have been cleared or who cannot be charged, and prosecute the rest in federal criminal courts under our Constitution and laws.

Nancy Talanian is director of No More Guantanamos, a national organization based in Whately


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