During a recent protest outside the White House calling for the closure of the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base on the island of Cuba, a teenager approached a colleague to ask him what the expression. He told her that he had never heard of the detention center.
It’s been 20 years and four presidential administrations since Guantánamo opened, but for those born since then, its terrifying stories are more like the plot of a fictional horror movie than the real thing. It is a shameful legacy that we simply cannot pass on to future generations.
Opened in response to the September 11 attacks, Guantánamo has detained nearly 780 Muslim men and boys. Before being detained, many were kidnapped, disappeared and brutally tortured in secret prisons run by the United States or by so-called allies in the “war on terror”. At Guantanamo, they were tortured, very few were charged with crimes and none received a fair trial. The Kafkaesque military commissions set up to try them have proven ineffective and unfair, denying the defendants an impartial arbiter and access to critical evidence. Meanwhile, the families of the 9/11 victims waited in vain for justice.
Amnesty International and many others around the world have campaigned fiercely for the closure of the prison since its inception. President Joe Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, has promised to shut it down, but he has so far failed to do so.
The Biden administration transferred an inmate out of the facility in July, but has yet to reestablish the office of the special envoy in the State Department dedicated to the prison closure. On the contrary, the administration recently announced its intention to build a new courtroom at Guantanamo to continue the work of the military commissions – the opposite of a plan to shut down the place.
It’s not just about shutting down Guantanamo. It is also about being held accountable for the violations committed in its environment. Last year, testimonies from a number of former detainees, including Majid Khan, Abu Zubayda and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, describing their abuses at “black sites” operated by the United States abroad and at Guantanamo , have been made public. Abu Zubaydah’s story was told in a PBS documentary called The Forever Prisoner. positions, blows, force-feeding using tubes filled with hot sauce and sodomy with a garden hose.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in civil cases against Italy, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland and Romania for their complicity in the torture and enforced disappearance of people under US programs of rendition and secret detention, but there has never been any significant responsibility for the United States. From those who authorized torture at the highest levels of government to those who applied illegal “enhanced interrogation techniques”, no one has ever been held responsible for the crimes committed. It should begin with the declassification and full publication of the report of the US Senate Special Committee on CIA Torture Intelligence.
Thirty-nine men remain at Guantanamo. Thirteen remain in indefinite detention, although their transfer has been approved – some more than ten years ago. Twelve are indicted in military commissions, while the other 14 live in hellish limbo: not yet allowed to be transferred, but never charged with a crime. Their fate is a relic of the overarching principles that have prevailed at Guantanamo since its inception – cruelty and arbitrariness.
The US government must take swift action to correct this wrong. He must undertake to resolve the case of each detainee through his transfer and release without further delay and in accordance with international law. Or if there is sufficient admissible evidence to prosecute internationally recognized criminal offenses, this must be done through a fair judicial resolution in a regularly constituted federal court without recourse to the death penalty.
Guantánamo remains an indelible stain in US history, a chapter the US government must now close and never repeat. President Biden owes us all – those who have lived or watched Guantánamo in horror over the years, and new and future generations who have just learned more – to shut it down once and for all.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.