Reportage: The last prisoners of Guantánamo

The infamous US Guantánamo prison camp has almost been forgotten in the midst of war and crises. But 31 prisoners are still being held here. Now President Biden is releasing several inmates.

The day at Guantánamo Bay begins with the US national anthem. The heroic melody is carried over loudspeakers across the wide, dusty bay at the southern tip of Cuba. A light breeze is still blowing over the US naval base, and by noon at the latest there will be little to be felt. Two young female soldiers hoist the US flag in front of the command center. Behind lies the turquoise Caribbean Sea, palm leaves rustle in the wind. One could almost think that there is no more peaceful place on earth.

But barbed wire and the strictest security measures are a reminder that Guantánamo Bay is not just any military base. More than 21 years ago, following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, Republican President George W. Bush established a prison here to hold suspected terrorists without trial. Almost 800 people were temporarily detained at Guantánamo. The legal situation of the prisoners, their prison conditions, reports on the interrogation and torture methods used led to an international outcry. It has faded away, but the prison is still there.

31 inmates left

According to the latest information from the US Department of Defense, 31 people are still being held in Guantánamo. Their prison conditions are no longer comparable to those of Bush’s time. Weeds have long been growing over the wire enclosures of the notorious Camp X-Ray, where the first prisoners arrived in January 2002. Pictures of the cages, with prisoners kneeling in humiliation in orange suits, went around the world. But the fact that the US is still holding people here without trial hasn’t changed.

“Most of the detained men were never charged, let alone tried or convicted,” says Daphne Eviatar of the human rights organization Amnesty International in Washington. After more than two decades of “this blatant injustice,” the US government is obliged to transfer the remaining prisoners to situations in which their human rights are respected. “The Biden administration must make prisoner transfers and the closure of Guantánamo a higher priority.”

USA refuse admission

US President Joe Biden, a Democrat, declared the closure of the prison as a goal at the beginning of his term in office. Even Bush’s democratic successor, Barack Obama, wanted that, but failed because of resistance in the US Congress. Republican Donald Trump, on the other hand, wanted to keep the camp open. Biden now has his say, but he has a problem: In the most recent defense budget, the US Congress renewed a legal requirement that the US government may not spend any money on taking prisoners from Guantánamo. The requirement also applies to transfers to certain countries such as Somalia or Yemen. No funds are earmarked for the closure of the Guantánamo Bay naval base either.

A life takes place here that has little to do with that of the prisoners in the isolated camp. The military base, affectionately called “Gitmo” by its approximately 6,000 residents, resembles a small US town. There are several housing developments, a large supermarket, a church, a car wash, an outdoor cinema and a McDonald’s. A souvenir shop sells Guntánamo shirts and other souvenirs. In the evening, the sporting event of the year, the Superbowl, is broadcast in a bowling bar. Rihanna sings with a baby bump on the halftime show.

17 prisoners are allowed to leave immediately

As surreal as life on the base is the fact that the US government cannot implement its plan to close the prison on its own. Biden needs help from other countries. According to the Pentagon, 17 of the 31 remaining prisoners at Guantánamo are immediately eligible for transfer, while some have been waiting for years. The US government has approved the transfers in these cases because it does not believe they pose a threat to national security. But the translations are complicated.

Amnesty International’s Daphne Eviatar also blames the Americans. By the US Congress refusing to take prisoners, the US was stigmatized. In a way, it is understandable that other countries are reluctant to join. The reasons for the refusal of the US to take the money into its own hands are purely political in nature and are not based on practical obstacles or dangers.

Small advances

According to the Pentagon, there have been nine transfers since Biden began his tenure, some of them in the past few days and weeks. With one exception, all have returned to their countries of origin. Attorney Wells Dixon from the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York sees some progress in this, but also says: “This is not a rendition rate that will lead to closure in the next few years.” There were around 500 transfers under Bush, around 200 under Obama and just one under Trump. Dixon specializes in taking action against wrongful detention at Guantánamo and represents prisoners himself.

Unlike the prisoners who have already been transferred, the remaining 17 who are eligible for an immediate transfer cannot return home for humanitarian reasons and because US law doesn’t allow it, Dixon said. Many of them come from Yemen, for example. How long you are held in Guantánamo also depends on “where you were lucky or unlucky to be born,” he says. “They will remain in Guantanamo until other countries agree to accept them and offer them a new home.”

The deals between the US and third countries do not always mean release. In some cases, it is negotiated that the prisoners will continue to be monitored and not allowed to travel freely, in other cases it is about transfer to another prison. Following the recent transfer of a man to Saudi Arabia, the US government said it appreciates partners’ willingness to help “responsibly reduce the number of detainees and ultimately close the Guantanamo Bay facility.”

Lengthy procedures

But there are also much more complex cases – such as those prisoners who were charged before the military tribunal in Guantanamo. One of them is 63-year-old Hadi al-Iraqi, whose future is currently being debated before the special tribunal. Last year he pleaded guilty under a so-called plea agreement with law enforcement to being responsible for attacks on US forces and allies in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004 as a senior member of al-Qaeda. He expects his verdict next year.

Al-Iraqi was captured in Turkey in 2006 and interrogated several times by the CIA “as a high-value prisoner” before being taken to Guantanamo. He is in a wheelchair and suffers from a degenerative spinal disease. As part of the agreement, the United States will try to have him extradited to a third country within two years, where he can receive the medical care his lawyers believe he urgently needs. In the courtroom in Guantánamo there is a sickbed on which the tall, gaunt man can rest during the breaks in the hearings.

And more are facing war crimes tribunals. Among them is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and four other men charged in this connection. The process has been stuck for years. “If the government is serious about closing the prison, then they must also negotiate a solution to these cases,” says lawyer Dixon. “Then such agreements must also be negotiated in these cases, because maintaining the status quo will not lead to a solution.”

Lawyer: There is no political will

Germany is also a possible host country. At the moment, however, there are no inquiries from the USA about this, according to the Federal Foreign Office at the beginning of March. From the outside, it is difficult to judge whether Biden will raise the issue of Guantanamo at his numerous meetings with other heads of state and government, but in any case it plays no role in his public communications. Amnesty International’s Eviatar says the US should use its leverage more to secure the transfer of the last Guantánamo prisoners.

The US does not shy away from denouncing human rights violations around the world. But when it comes to one’s own transgressions, the zeal is somewhat slowed down. In a 2014 report, the US Congress described in painful detail the methods the CIA used to interrogate suspected terrorists in secret prisons abroad in order to coerce testimony – such as simulated drowning (waterboarding), sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours, hurling against the cell wall or the rectal introduction of food. Many of the prisoners came to Guantánamo and experienced humiliation and abuse there too. Anyone who addresses Guantánamo recalls all these dark moments.

“As long as Guantánamo has existed, many countries around the world, certainly most of the US allies, have called for the closure of Guantánamo, recognizing and understanding that Guantánamo is a humanitarian catastrophe and illegal,” said Attorney Dixon. “But that’s not enough to close Guantanamo.” Biden lacks the “political and diplomatic will” to close Guantánamo.

Notice from the US Department of Defense (March 8) Notice from the US Department of Defense (February 23) Notice from the US Department of Defense (February 2) The New York Times Guantánamo File US Senate Torture Report (2014) US Defense Budget 2023 Profile Dixon Wells (Center for Constitutional Rights)


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