‘He’s a huge political albatross’: Guantánamo Bay, 20 years later | Guantanamo golf course

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ohn January 4, 2002, Brigadier General Michael Lehnert received an urgent deployment order. It would take a small force of Marines and Sailors and build a prison camp in the US-ruled military enclave on Cuba’s southern coast, Guantánamo Bay.

Lehnert had 96 hours to deploy and build the first 100 cells, in time for the first plane loaded with captives arriving from the battlefield in Afghanistan on January 11. The job was done on time: a grid of wire cages surrounded by barbed wire and six plywood guard towers held by snipers. There were five windowless huts for interrogation. It was called Camp X-Ray.

The X-Ray camp was built in three days, but the sprawling Guantánamo Bay prison camp that resulted from it proved to be very difficult to dismantle. About 780 detainees have been held there over the past 20 years, many of them arbitrarily swept away on the battlefield. An academic study found that 55% of them had not committed any hostile acts against the United States or its allies.

US Army Military Police escorted an inmate to his cell at Camp X-Ray on January 11, 2002. Photograph: Reuters

Three of the last four U.S. Presidents (Donald Trump being the exception) have attempted to shut it down, but 20 years later it’s still there, a legal anomaly and a weight of lead wrapped around America’s global reputation.

As the 20th anniversary approached, Lehnert, now retired, appeared at a Senate hearing and looked back with regret.

“The speed of Guantánamo’s creation and the urgency to get information had bad consequences,” Lehnert told senators. “I’m not a lawyer, but even I know that when you let go of generations of legal thought and precedent, bad things happen.”

Lehnert had been part of a group of military officers who tried to make Guantánamo a conventional POW camp, subject to the Geneva Conventions, but they were rejected by their superiors in the Pentagon, who had chosen the site precisely because ‘it would be outside the rule of law.

“I remember hearing conversations that it was useful to set up a facility to detain terrorists captured at Guantanamo, because basically there was no clear legal background and that was seen as an advantage.” , Daniel Fried, a career American diplomat who worked in the Bush. White House at the time, the Guardian said. “What I was hearing at the time is that it’s a whole new world, the old rules don’t apply anymore.

“It turned out to be a horrible mistake,” he said.

Inmates hang on a fence at Camp Delta maximum security prison at Guantanamo Naval Base in August 2004.
Inmates hang on a fence at Camp Delta maximum security prison at Guantanamo Naval Base in August 2004. Photograph: Reuters

It was a mistake that was difficult for the United States to erase, as Fried knows firsthand. In the Obama administration, he was appointed special envoy for the closure of Guantanamo. He had some success in the administration’s first year in persuading Allied governments to accept Guantanamo detainees, and the camp’s population was reduced to 41, but Barack Obama broke his promise. to close it completely. His administration has backed down from efforts to hold trials in New York City and place long-term inmates in an empty Illinois prison in the face of furious local opposition.

Guantánamo Bay (known in the US Army by its abbreviation GTMO) was left behind. Conditions have improved: detainees are no longer in solitary confinement and are kept in cell blocks with shared refrigerators and pantries, but detention without trial remains a constant. In its 20 years of existence, only 12 detainees have been charged and only two have been sentenced by military commissions.

The trial of the five accused of direct participation in the 9/11 conspiracy, including his supposed mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, has not even started. They are entering the 10th year of preliminary hearings. At the other end of the scale, 13 “low value” inmates were allowed to transfer, in some cases many years ago. Tawfiq al-Bihani, a Yemeni arrested in Iran in 2001, was recommended for repatriation in 2010. But due to Republican opposition in Congress, bureaucratic inertia and the difficulty of finding countries willing to accept them , they are still stranded on the island.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, center, and co-accused Walid Bin Attash, left, attend a pre-trial session at Guantánamo Bay.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, center, and co-accused Walid Bin Attash, left, attend a pre-trial session at Guantánamo Bay. Photograph: Janet Hamlin / AP

Presiding over the Judicial Committee hearing last month, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said: law.

“This is where due process will die,” Durbin said.

This is also where a growing number of inmates can end their lives. Over the past 20 years, nine inmates have died in the camp, seven of them by apparent suicide. One of them was Yasser Talal Al Zahrani, a Saudi teenager at the time of his capture in Afghanistan in 2002. He was found dead in his cell four years later. His family insist he did not kill himself.

“A lot of people don’t realize the gravity of being imprisoned at the GTMO,” said Omar Deghayes, a Libyan citizen and UK resident, who spent five years there without charge. He was blinded in one eye in what he said was an assault by a guard.

“This is not how people imagine themselves. It’s worse, ”Deghayes said. “I don’t see why the GTMO is open when the war in Afghanistan is over. Judge people, let them see the evidence and represent themselves, or let them go. “

Over time, more and more prisoners risk death in Guantanamo from natural causes. It will increasingly become a very expensive, but very rudimentary, retirement home in the Caribbean. The Pentagon has requested $ 88 million to build a hospice for aging inmates, the The New York Times reported. The prison camp already costs more than half a billion dollars a year, or nearly 14 million dollars per inmate, compared to about $ 80,000 per inmate in American “supermax” prisons.

Joe Biden, like Obama, has pledged to shut down the camp, but has so far reduced the prison population to just one. Abdul Latif Nasser, a Moroccan captured in Afghanistan, was returned to his home country in July after being held for 19 years without charge. He was on the verge of release in 2016, but the required documents were not gathered in time for the Trump administration to take office. All work on the exits came to a halt, and Nasser had to wait almost five more years.

His lawyer, Thomas Durkin, doubts that Nasser’s release is part of a larger administrative plan to close the prison.

Abdul Latif Naser.
Abdul Latif Nasser. Photography: AP

“I don’t know what their strategy is,” Durkin said. “They say they want to shut down Guantanamo, but they seem to be running into the same problems as Obama… Guantanamo has taken its own life. He’s a huge political albatross, and frankly, Obama dropped the ball.

In 2010, a Republican-led Congress passed a defense spending bill that included clauses aimed at preventing transfers of prisoners to the United States and restricting transfers from Guantanamo. These restrictions have been renewed and adjusted every year since.

Biden’s critics claim that Biden is using Congress as an excuse for his slow progress. They point out that he has not appointed a special envoy and that his administration has declined invitations to send officials to the Senate hearing on Guantanamo.

Leading Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, taunted the Biden team, saying: “No one from the administration has come out to defend the president’s plan to shut down Guantánamo, and I am not sure there is a plan. “

Administration officials insist that much of the preparatory work to clear the camp is being done behind the scenes without fanfare, and with a relatively small number of detainees remaining, a special envoy was no longer needed.

The guard tower of the 'Camp Six' detention center in January 2012.
The guard tower of the ‘Camp Six’ detention center in January 2012. Photograph: Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

“The State Department has a team of officers in its counterterrorism office that focuses on Guantanamo transfers and related matters,” a senior administration official said. “The ministry is committed to ensuring that it can effectively meet the needs of this priority mission. With only 39 inmates remaining, we are faced with a much different landscape now. “

What has not changed in this landscape is the categorical opposition of the Republicans to any movement towards the closure of the prison camp. Republican congressional leaders, who supported transfers under the Bush administration, now label all of Guantánamo’s detainees, from 9/11 defendants to those released years ago, as “terrorists.”

At the December hearing, Grassley invoked the fact that “more than 4,000 servicemen gave their lives in a war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan”.

“Veterans of these wars gave their lives to protect Americans from terrorists, like those in Guantánamo Bay,” Grassley said.

Faced with such absolutist opposition, Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the administration’s best strategy would be to drop its opposition in habeas corpus cases and allow courts to order transfers of prisoners.

It could be done “in a responsible, legal and safe manner,” Shamsi said. “With court-ordered transfers, there are no congressional notification requirements.”

As for the detainees who have been charged, she argued that the administration should seek plea deals, which would involve, among other compromises, removing the death penalty from the table.

US military guards march through Camp Delta prison in June 2006.
US military guards march through Camp Delta prison in June 2006. Photograph: Brennan Linsley / AP

The political storm that would erupt over any plea deal would be explosive, and water the mill for the Republican portrayal of Biden as weak in the face of America’s enemies. But Bernard Harcourt, a law professor who also represented Abdul Latif Nasser, said Biden’s policies would not improve.

“These are the kind of thorns that you need to remove immediately,” Harcourt said. “With the mid-terms on the horizon and then a new presidential election, the pressure is not going to ease. It’s just going to get worse. “


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