Time stands still for Guantanamo's last prisoners


The former Camp X-Ray lies in the morning mist. The first Guantanamo prisoners arrived here on Jan 11, 2002 and it was closed again after only a few months. Photos: Magdalena Miriam Trondle/dpa

The day in Guantanamo Bay begins with the US national anthem booming through loudspeakers across the rippling waters at the southern tip of Cuba.

In front of the command centre of the world-famous US naval base, two soldiers hoist the Stars and Stripes on the flag pole. The vast turquoise sea glistens behind them and palms rustle in the breeze.

It’s a picture-perfect scene of tranquility – but for the razor wire and high-security all around reminding that “Gitmo”, as its garrison calls it, is no regular military base.

It is also the site of more than two decades of “blatant injustice”, according to the human rights organisation Amnesty International.

In 2002, in response to 9/11, the airliner attacks of Sept 11 the previous year, the Republican administration of US President George W. Bush approved the construction of a facility on the coast of Cuba to hold suspected terrorists without trial.

The legal status of the prisoners, their conditions of detention, and reports of aggressive interrogation and torture led to an international outcry.

Two marines raising the US flag in front of the command centre at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay.Two marines raising the US flag in front of the command centre at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay.

The widespread condemnation has faltered, but the site still operates: Since it opened, almost 800 detainees from some 50 countries have passed through its gates.

According to the latest Pentagon figures, 30 people are currently still being held at Guantanamo. Conditions are much improved since Bush sat in the White House, but the basic human rights principle of a fair trial continues to be entirely neglected.

“Most of the men detained have never even been charged with a crime, let alone given a trial or convicted of anything,” says Daphne Eviatar of Amnesty International in Washington.

More than two decades later, the US government has an obligation to transfer the remaining detainees to situations where their human rights are respected, she stresses.

Shutting down Guantanamo was a goal set by President Joe Biden, a Democrat, at the start of his term. But he is facing a glaring problem: in the latest defence budget, the US Congress renewed a legal requirement which restricts the government from spending money on accepting prisoners from the facility.

This also applies to transfers to certain countries such as Somalia or Yemen, and to the closure of the naval base on Cuba, which leads a separate life from that of the prisoners in the sealed-off camp.

“Gitmo” has around 6,000 inhabitants, resembling the population of that of a small US city. There are several housing developments, a large supermarket, a church, a car wash, an open-air cinema, a McDonald’s and a souvenir shop that sells Guantanamo shirts.

A US flag behind a fence and barbed wire at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.A US flag behind a fence and barbed wire at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.

So the US government cannot implement its plan to close the site on its own, leaving Biden dependent on help from other countries.

According to the Pentagon, 16 of the last Guantanamo detainees are immediately eligible for transfer and some have been waiting for years. The government has approved the transfers in these cases because it does not regard them as a threat to national security.

Since Biden’s tenure began, there have been nine transfers, some of them in recent days and weeks. All but one returned to their countries of origin, US defence officials say.

Attorney Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, who represents detainees himself, says the pace is too slow, and that the current rate of transfers will not lead to the actual closure of Guantanamo.

Unlike the inmates already transferred, the 16 remaining who are eligible for immediate transfer cannot return home – for humanitarian reasons and because US law does not allow it, Dixon says. Many of them come from Yemen.

“So they will remain in Guantanamo until other countries agree to resettle them and offer them new homes,” he says.

But there are also far more complex cases – such as detainees who were charged before the military tribunal in Guantanamo. One of them is 63-year-old Hadi al-Iraqi, whose future is currently in the tribunal’s hands.

Last year, as part of a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to being a senior member of al-Qaeda in 2003 and 2004, responsible for attacks on US forces and allies in Afghanistan.

The US wants to transfer him to a third country within two years, so he can get the medical care his lawyers say he urgently needs.

“So if the administration is serious about closing the prison, it has to negotiate the resolution of those cases,” says Dixon.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and four other men, also face trial at the tribunal.

Germany is one possible host country, but at the start of March, the Foreign Office in Berlin said there were currently no such requests from the US. Eviatar says the US must use its influence more strongly to achieve the transfer of the last Guantanamo prisoners.

However, Dixon says Biden lacks “the political and the diplomatic will” to close Guantanamo.

“For almost as long as Guantanamo has been opened, many countries around the world, certainly most US allies, have called for the closure of Guantanamo, have recognised and understood Guantanamo is a humanitarian disaster, and is unlawful,” Dixon says, but adds that this is “not enough to bring about the closure of Guantanamo”. – dpa

Subscribe now to our Premium Plan for an ad-free and unlimited reading experience!

Next In People

Man laid to rest 80 years after his death in World War II
Finding eternal rest, at the foot of a tree
Malaysian chef wins Asia's Best Vegan Chef award in Tamil Nadu, India
‘Til trash do us part': Taiwan couple embraces garbage wedding shoot
What it's like driving one of Australia's 50m megatrucks
How prisoners milk cows and sell farm products in Germany
Malaysian woman shares dystonia and epilepsy battle on social media
Phocomelia-born Sabahan is a businessman, carpenter, baker and weightlifter
With workers lacking in Germany, some firms recruit from the army
French village divided as Nazi commander grandkids attend memorial for victims

Others Also Read