The U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay reached its shameful 20th anniversary this January. Its legacy is the detention of nearly 800 Muslim men and boys, most without charge or trial. Many have been tortured.
President Biden pledged to close the prison, but so far he has yet to take any significant steps toward that goal.
Without bold action, Biden risks following in President Obama’s footsteps with empty promises that ultimately perpetuate the status quo. Meanwhile, the remaining 39 prisoners — and our nation’s rule of law — still languish.
Weeks after taking office, Biden initiated a review of operations at Guantánamo. He’s since overseen the release of only one prisoner, Abdul Latif Nasser from Morocco. Nasser spent 19 years at Guantánamo without charge before being freed last July — over five years after his release was approved.
On Gitmo’s 20th anniversary, the Pentagon announced that five more detainees held for years without charge had been approved for release. But if Nasser’s case is any indication, these along with the other 13 prisoners cleared for release could still be imprisoned for years.
Tellingly, the Biden administration now plans to build a second courtroom at Gitmo by 2023, which suggests prolonging the prison rather than closing it. Worse still, the new courtroom will ban the public from the chamber.
The lack of transparency is no surprise for a prison that was designed to be a legal black hole from the beginning.
The Bush administration created Gitmo in 2002 to house, ostensibly, “the worst of the worst” prisoners during the War on Terror. Instead, the prison has since become synonymous with blatant abuse and injustice.
Searing, dehumanizing images have emerged of prisoners in bright orange jumpsuits kneeling before U.S. soldiers, shackled, handcuffed, hooded, and blindfolded. Prisoners have been subjected to extraordinary rendition and torture, including extended sleep deprivation and waterboarding, as well as religious persecution and humiliation for their Islamic faith.
The 2022 defense authorization bill, which Biden signed last December, extends prohibitions on transferring Gitmo detainees to the U.S. or other countries. This effectively prevents Biden from shutting down the prison, a fact he acknowledged while still signing the bill into law.
Of the remaining 39 detainees, 12 men are at various stages of military prosecution. Biden, as commander-in-chief, should pursue negotiated resolutions to their cases rather than rely on the failed military commissions, as Department of Defense attorney Ian Moss recommends.
Those prisoners already cleared for release and others not facing criminal charges should be immediately repatriated to their home countries if possible or resettled in third countries with security guarantees.
Finally, meaningful accountability must follow. If the U.S. fails to prosecute the unlawful abductions, detentions, and torture associated with Guantánamo — or seek justice for survivors — then those abuses could well occur again.
Guantánamo prison tarnishes America’s global standing every day that it remains open. And for detainees, every day it is open means another day of confinement and separation from their children and families.
“Some of us had children who were born in our absence and grew up without fathers,” five former prisoners wrote in an open letter to Biden. “Others experienced the pain of learning that our close relatives died back home waiting in vain for news of our return. Waiting in vain for justice.”
The Guantánamo prison should never have reached its 20th anniversary. It’s time to turn the page once and for all on this sordid chapter in our nation’s history.