By Aisha Maniar
The US-run detention centre for war on terror prisoners at Guantánamo Bay turns 20 on 11th January 2022. Having opened up in its current incarnation – the site previously hosted an immigration detention centre for Haitian refugees in the 1990s – in January 2002, from a high of around 800 Muslim prisoners, including boys as young as 12, there are currently 39 prisoners held. The regime of torture and arbitrary detention over the past two decades has cost the US taxpayer over $6 billion.
While the media and politicians continue to highlight the alleged but unproven risk the prisoners pose to the world at large, the fact remains that 86% of the prisoners were not engaged in combat or captured on the battlefield. They were sold to the US military for bounties, typically of around $5,000, by the Afghan and Pakistani armies and militias. Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf referred to it as “prize money”. Others arrived following extraordinary rendition – kidnap, detention and torture in secret facilities around the world – by the CIA and allied intelligence services across the world.
As a result, even with the use of evidence obtained through the use of torture, only one final judgment has been obtained through the Kafkaesque military commission system; more prisoners have died at Guantánamo than have been convicted. Of the remaining prisoners, more than half face no charges or prospect of trial. No good reasons are offered for why they were and continue to be detained indefinitely without charge or trial, particularly after the end of the US war in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, the alleged rationale for Guantánamo’s existence.
The election of Joe Biden in early 2021, the fourth president to oversee the facility, brought renewed hope that the Democrat leader would close the facility. However, while Biden has stated his intention to close Guantánamo, and launched a formal review of the situation there shortly after becoming president, there has been little by way of action. Instead, in the federal courts, his administration has used the same arguments and reasoning against Guantánamo prisoners as the previous Trump administration, has started a new prosecution at Guantánamo against three prisoners who arrived at Guantánamo in 2006, and is reported to be building a second courtroom without public access, scheduled to be completed by 2023.
On the other hand, over the past year, the prisoner population has fallen by one, to 39, after Moroccan Abdullatif Nasser was repatriated in July; he was cleared for release in 2016. However, for many of the other 12 prisoners who have also been cleared, having effectively been made refugees through the US’s ongoing wars in Yemen and elsewhere and with the stigma attached to Guantánamo detention, safe third countries have to be found to host them.
As vice president to Obama for eight years, Biden oversaw the “release” of over 200 prisoners to third countries, which was often the start of a new ordeal in a strange land and without the promise of freedom. Over a dozen Yemenis released to the UAE in this way in 2015-2017 were forcedly repatriated to their war-torn homeland in 2021, several of whom have “disappeared” since returning there. Although the US media and human rights organisations applaud the release of prisoners, and the US government continues to keep a close eye on released prisoners, there is little concern about what happens to them afterwards: poverty, isolation and discrimination in a strange land and the strain of Guantánamo Bay detention on the physical and mental health of former prisoners.
In December, the US Senate held a hearing about closing Guantánamo, the first such hearing in six years. The Biden administration failed to send a witness to provide testimony on how the administration plans to close Guantánamo and what it is doing. Both Republicans and Democrats expressed their frustration at the administration’s lack of action over Guantánamo, but otherwise reiterated arguments they have long made for its closure or continued operation.
The lack of progress and failure to even devise a plan to close Guantánamo reflect the longstanding general political and moral apathy over indefinite arbitrary detention at the prison camp, both within the US and outside. The silence of the US’s allies over Guantánamo Bay was bought through their complicity in its existence. Poor public awareness due to patchy media coverage has led to public apathy too.
While Guantánamo detention may be viewed as a remote reality by many, if at all, Guantánamo Bay is not just symbolic of torture, arbitrary detention and US imperialism in the twenty first century, but a justification and contribution to the degradation of adherence to the rule of law around the world under the guise of the so-called war on terror. It has helped to legitimise the arbitrary detention experienced by many thousands around the world in immigration detention and other forms of administrative detention. Instead of efforts to close Guantánamo, efforts have instead been made over the past two decades to spread its contagion of the abuse of legal standards and human rights protections worldwide.
Aisha Maniar is a human rights activist who works with the London Guantánamo Campaign.
Main image: Guantánamo protest, courtesy of author. Images in text: Activists in an action organised by Amnesty Brighton on January 8th 2022 to mark 20 years of Guantánamo Bay, courtesy of Sara Birch
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