Above photo: Advocates for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, including Roger Waters, call on President Biden to close it on the 20th anniversary of its opening, Jan. 11, 2022. Check out all the photos here.
It is, to be blunt, beyond dispiriting to have to be calling for the closure of the tired and discredited “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay 20 years — 7,306 days — since it first opened.
The prison, as I have long explained, is a legal, moral and ethical abomination, and every day that it remains open ought to be a source of shame to anyone with any respect for the law — or, for that matter, with any common decency.
In countries that respect the rule of law, the only way to be stripped of your liberty is as a criminal suspect or as a prisoner of war protected by the Geneva Conventions. At Guantánamo, the Bush administration threw away the rulebook, holding men without any rights whatsoever as “enemy combatants”, who could be held indefinitely, with no requirement that they ever face charges, and with no legal mechanism in place to ever ensure their release. And despite legal challenges over the last 20 years, that is still fundamentally the situation that prevails today.
Statistics alone can’t capture the misery and lawless brutality of Guantánamo on this grim anniversary. 779 men have been held at Guantánamo by the US military since the prison opened on January 11, 2002. Nine men have died at the prison, all held without charge or trial, and all slandered by military after their deaths, just one man was successfully transferred to the US court system, where he was tried and convicted and is serving a life sentence in a Supermax prison, and 730 men have been released.
Even when they are released from Guantánamo, however, these former prisoners are not free. Many have been accused of being “recidivists” — of returning to the battlefield — in US government reports that are fundamentally unbelievable, and those freed also remain haunted by the “taint” of Guantánamo — still existing fundamentally without rights, prevented from traveling, harassed indiscriminately and sometimes even imprisoned, and generally finding it impossible to find work to support themselves. Of particular concern are many of those who, for a variety of reasons, could not be safely repatriated, and who have ended up in third countries, based on confidential agreements between the US and their host countries that are not publicly disclosed, and that have often failed to provide them with any basic protections or support.
To this end, I’d like to use this occasion to announce my intention to set up a new not-for-profit organization, the Guantánamo Accountability Project (G.A.P.), to publicize the plight of former prisoners, to demand that the US removes the stigma of being “enemy combatants” from them, which, almost uniquely on the face of the earth, consigns them to a status of “non-being” that is absolutely unacceptable, and, in the longer run, to deal with issues of accountability and reparations. Please get in touch if you’d like to be involved, and particularly if you have experience of setting up non-profit organizations in the US and of fundraising.
So what of the 39 men still held at Guantánamo on this depressing anniversary? Are they, as Donald Rumsfeld claimed when the prison opened, “the worst of the worst,” hardline terrorists captured on the battlefield, who “would chew through a hydraulics cable to bring a C-17 [transport plane] down,” as General Richard E. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described them?
They are not. Of the 779 men held at Guantánamo, none were captured on a battlefield. The largest contingent were captured crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001, who were all labeled at Al-Qaeda, even though the majority were either civilians fleeing the destruction of Afghanistan, or simple foot soldiers in an inter-Muslim civil war that had morphed into a war against the US after 9/11. Many — if not most — were sold for substantial bounty payments by the US’s Afghan and Pakistani allies. Some were rounded up in house raids in Pakistan, often based on spectacularly poor intelligence, and some were held for years in CIA “black sites” before their transfer to Guantánamo.
And while some of these men were allegedly involved in planning and facilitating 9/11 attacks and other terrorist attacks, many were revealed as wrongfully held in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s torture program, whose executive summary was published in December 2014.
Even today, however, the US government is unwilling to acknowledge any fundamental challenges to its claimed “right” to hold men at Guantánamo forever. After 9/11, the Bush administration decided that the whole world was a battlefield in its “war on terror,” and, despite the complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan last summer, the US Justice Department still claims that it can continue to hold prisoners at Guantánamo on the basis of this global “war” that has no internationally recognized legal basis.
Of the 39 men still held, just 12 have been charged in the military commission trial system that has struggled to secure any lasting convictions, Just eight men in total have been convicted, and two of those rulings have been overturned on appeal. With one exception, all those men have been released, while ten others — including five men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks — are stuck in pre-trial hearings whose closest analogy seems to be ‘Groundhog Day.’ One other man, Majid Khan, was recently sentenced after agreeing to plea deal in 2012, while another, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, was given a life sentence after a one-sided trial in which he refused to mount a defense in 2008.
The Biden administration needs to work out what to do with these men, if justice is ever to be delivered, either by moving the trials to federal court, or by agreeing plea deals at Guantánamo itself.
For the 27 other men, however, the Biden administration has no more excuses for inaction. Five of them had already been approved for release by two high-level government review processes established by President Obama before President Biden took office, and 13 more have been approved for release in the last year (five in just the last few days) by the second of these processes, the ongoing Periodic Review Boards. That’s the good news: the bad news is that, despite now holding 18 men approved for release, the administration has not released any of them, rather making a mockery of the entire process of approving people for release in the first case.
In addition, nine other men are held as “forever prisoners,” neither charged nor approved for release, and while they continue to be eligible for ongoing reviews by the PRBs, the Biden administration must accept that they too must be released if they are not to be charged, as 24 Senators and 75 members of the House of Representatives made clear in letters to President Biden last year, calling for the closure of the prison, and a recognition, finally, that it is intolerable for men to continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial.
Today, as the American people are, hopefully, briefly reminded of the continuing existence of Guantánamo, which has, shamefully, been largely forgotten, President Biden needs to show political courage by releasing everyone who has not been charged, and by locating a method whereby justice can be delivered in the cases of those who have been charged.
Because Guantánamo has largely been forgotten, there is no political advantage to this. Morally bankrupt Republicans will criticize him, and try to turn it to their cynical political advantage, but short-term political gain is not what is at stake here; instead, the closure of Guantánamo involves political courage, and a recognition that, while it remains open, a deep and implacable corrosion continues to eat away at America’s soul.
The absolute requirement to do what is right, even in the face of cynical Republican opposition, largely derailed President Obama’s plans to close the prison; after 20 years, however, the time for fence-sitting has come to an end. Joe Biden must do what is right, and must close Guantánamo for good.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).