On Thursday, Human rights defenders marked 22 years since the opening of the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba with renewed calls for President Joe Biden to fulfil his stated intention to close the notorious torture camp, where 30 men—16 of them cleared for release—remain behind bars.
“It is outrageous that 22 years after the U.S. government opened the Guantánamo detention camp to detain Muslim men beyond the reach of U.S. law, that this abuse of human rights continues today,” Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security with Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement.
Like most of the roughly 750 prisoners released from Guantánamo, the majority of remaining detainees have never been charged with any crime. Only one—Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al-Bahlul, a Yemeni national—has ever been convicted of terrorism-related charges under the highly controversial military commission regime established by the George W. Bush administration in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Four American presidents have failed to close Gitmo, whose detainees ranged in age from 13 to 74 and which is viewed globally as a symbol of the indefinite detention and torture that took place earlier during the ongoing U.S.-led War on Terror.
Former President Barack Obama—under whom Biden served as vice president—issued executive orders immediately after taking office in 2009 that were meant to end torture and close Gitmo. However, Obama was blocked by Congress from proceeding with his plan to close the prison, frustrating his campaign promise. Obama was also accused of breaking the law by actively shielding Bush-era officials from facing justice for their roles in torture at Gitmo and other military prisons and CIA so-called “black sites.”
Shortly after Biden took office, the White House signalled it wanted to close Guantánamo. However, despite releasing 10 detainees, the administration has taken few steps toward achieving that goal and has spent millions of dollars expanding the facility by building a courtroom where prisoners are meant to be tried in secret.
However, the military commissions—which former lead prosecutor Col. Morris Davis called “rigged from the start”—have been stymied by the torture endured by defendants at the hands of the military and CIA operatives. Military judges have barred Guantánamo detainees or evidence in terrorism cases from the courtroom due to torture.
Among the Guantánamo detainees cleared for release is “forever prisoner” Abu Zubaydah, who has been imprisoned at Gitmo for 21 years without charge and was the first known victim of waterboarding.
“More than half of those who remain are men the United States itself does not believe need to be detained,” the Center for Constitutional Rights—which represents some Guantánamo detainees—said in a statement Thursday. “The fact that they continue to languish after two decades is a cruelty that could end tomorrow.”