In early February, more than 100 organizations, led by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Center for Victims of Torture, signed onto a letter to President Biden urging him to make good on his campaign pledge to close down the notorious U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The Guantanamo prison was established by former President George W. Bush in 2002 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. and initially was designed to imprison terrorism suspects. But during the intervening 19 years, Guantanamo was transformed into an offshore prison beyond the reach of U.S. law and constitutional rights. Since its opening, nearly 800 men and boys have passed through its doors, where many were subjected to torture and held indefinitely without charge or trial.
Biden has previously pledged to follow through on former President Barack Obama’s efforts to close the prison camp, which currently houses some 40 prisoners. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Aliya Hussain, an advocacy program manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who talks about the national coalition of groups now working to press Biden to deliver on his promise to close down the U.S. Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
ALIYA HUSSAIN: So, in the last 19 years, Guantanamo’s held nearly 800 men in total. So citizens of, you know, close to 50 other countries. And as you mentioned, only 40 remain, which is such a small number when you think about it. And, most of them have been there well over a decade, some even for the full 19 years and you know, there’s a misconception of who’s at Guantanamo and why. The majority of men who remain have never been charged with a crime and they never will be. In terms of judicial process, you know, there are federal habeas cases, which many of the men there are pursuing. But ultimately, the government’s position — and when I say government, I mean the Bush administration, the Obama administration, the Trump administration — all administrations have maintained that the U.S. has the legal authority to hold these men basically until it decides it no longer wants to.
And so in that way, Guantanamo really is unlike any sort of, you know, carceral system that we understand within the U.S. where people are, you know, serving out sentences, they’ve been convicted of crimes. So there are a small number of people who are in the military commission system. At Guantanamo, there are 12 people with charges against them. And that’s, I think when people consider sort of judicial processes, that’s what they’re thinking about. But that system is also deeply flawed. It was created especially to sort of cover up the torture that many of the defendants in that system have endured. And most of the people in that system have also only been charged with a crime, not yet convicted after over a decade of proceedings. So for the majority of the men, those not in the commission system — including many of (unintelligible) own clients, it’s really through politics and not the courts that they have their best chance of leaving Guantanamo. And, that’s where I think President Biden comes in. And what we hope that he’ll do in terms of closing the prison.
SCOTT HARRIS: Aliyah, I did want to ask you, what are some of the obstacles to closing this prison down? I know that there’s a current federal law that prohibits the transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S. mainland. There are also difficulties of transferring those prisoners to other nations across the world. That’s certainly been a problem in the past. Review those two instances and anything else that is going to be an impediment to closing Guantanamo down.
ALIYA HUSSAIN: So you’re right to point out obstacles. Closing Guantanamo is certainly not easy. If it were, it would have been done a long time ago, but it’s definitely not impossible. And I think that’s what we’re focusing on with this new administration. You know, advocates — including some of my colleagues and allies — have put together a roadmap which is basically the way the administration can close Guantanamo. And that roadmap really focuses on what is possible and what is within the law and what the president has the authority and power to do. So the two examples, you mentioned: transfers to U.S. — you are right, that is something that is barred. But ultimately, you know, for us, one of the problems in President Obama’s closure plan was he saw closing Guantanamo as importing indefinite detention to the U.S. So, you know, both the people who wanted to keep Guantanamo open and those who wanted to keep it closed, like us said, you can’t close Guantanamo just by changing the zip code.
And so, we’re really looking to transfer to other countries as a way to reduce the prison population and close the prison. But there’s actually a lot that is allowed that federal law allows the president to do. And so, you know, right now we have 28 people who are not charged with a crime and our position, including six who’ve been cleared for release is that if the government has not charged these men and will not charge these men, they should be released. And so really it looks like returning them to their country of origin. Or if they’re unable to go back home to countries like Yemen, for example, there is a ban on transfers to Yemen that those men go to a third country for resettlement, so that the U.S. government negotiates their transfers to other countries.
And traditionally, that’s been very successful. Countries like Oman, Saudi Arabia, have taken dozens of prisoners. So this is the better way to help the administration reduce the population. So there have definitely have been some obstacles, but reflecting on the Obama years and the missteps, there was too much of a reliance, I think, on congressional authority and, you know, Congress certainly wasn’t an ally to Obama and the work to close Guantanamo, but now we’re saying to Biden that he doesn’t need Congress. He has the authority and the power to take action now. And, he should do so quickly, so as not to allow for criticism and opposition to rise just in the way that it did for Obama. When things got tough, he sort of backed down on his promise to close Guantanamo and therefore ultimately failed in that regard. So, really hoping Biden takes action quickly.
For more information on the Center for Constitutional Rights, visit ccrjustice.org.