As Guantánamo Turns 20, It Is Imperative That President Biden Finds the Political Will to Close It

11.1.22

Advocates for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, including Roger Waters, call on President Biden to close it on the 20th anniversary of its opening, Jan. 11, 2022. Check out all the photos here.

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It is, to be blunt, beyond dispiriting to have to be calling for the closure of the tired and discredited “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay 20 years — 7,306 days — since it first opened.

The prison, as I have long explained, is a legal, moral and ethical abomination, and every day that it remains open ought to be a source of shame to anyone with any respect for the law — or, for that matter, with any common decency.

In countries that respect the rule of law, the only way to be stripped of your liberty is as a criminal suspect or as a prisoner of war protected by the Geneva Conventions. At Guantánamo, the Bush administration threw away the rulebook, holding men without any rights whatsoever as “enemy combatants”, who could be held indefinitely, with no requirement that they ever face charges, and with no legal mechanism in place to ever ensure their release. And despite legal challenges over the last 20 years, that is still fundamentally the situation that prevails today.

Statistics alone can’t capture the misery and lawless brutality of Guantánamo on this grim anniversary. 779 men have been held at Guantánamo by the US military since the prison opened on January 11, 2002. Nine men have died at the prison, all held without charge or trial, and all slandered by military after their deaths, just one man was successfully transferred to the US court system, where he was tried and convicted and is serving a life sentence in a Supermax prison, and 730 men have been released.

Even when they are released from Guantánamo, however, these former prisoners are not free. Many have been accused of being “recidivists” — of returning to the battlefield — in US government reports that are fundamentally unbelievable, and those freed also remain haunted by the “taint” of Guantánamo — still existing fundamentally without rights, prevented from traveling, harassed indiscriminately and sometimes even imprisoned, and generally finding it impossible to find work to support themselves. Of particular concern are many of those who, for a variety of reasons, could not be safely repatriated, and who have ended up in third countries, based on confidential agreements between the US and their host countries that are not publicly disclosed, and that have often failed to provide them with any basic protections or support.

To this end, I’d like to use this occasion to announce my intention to set up a new not-for-profit organization, the Guantánamo Accountability Project (G.A.P.), to publicize the plight of former prisoners, to demand that the US removes the stigma of  being “enemy combatants” from them, which, almost uniquely on the face of the earth, consigns them to a status of “non-being” that is absolutely unacceptable, and, in the longer run, to deal with issues of accountability and reparations. Please get in touch if you’d like to be involved, and particularly if you have experience of setting up non-profit organizations in the US and of fundraising.

So what of the 39 men still held at Guantánamo on this depressing anniversary? Are they, as Donald Rumsfeld claimed when the prison opened, “the worst of the worst,” hardline terrorists captured on the battlefield, who “would chew through a hydraulics cable to bring a C-17 [transport plane] down,” as General Richard E. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described them?

They are not. Of the 779 men held at Guantánamo, none were captured on a battlefield. The largest contingent were captured crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001, who were all labeled at Al-Qaeda, even though the majority were either civilians fleeing the destruction of Afghanistan, or simple foot soldiers in an inter-Muslim civil war that had morphed into a war against the US after 9/11. Many — if not most — were sold for substantial bounty payments by the US’s Afghan and Pakistani allies. Some were rounded up in house raids in Pakistan, often based on spectacularly poor intelligence, and some were held for years in CIA “black sites” before their transfer to Guantánamo.

And while some of these men were allegedly involved in planning and facilitating 9/11 attacks and other terrorist attacks, many were revealed as wrongfully held in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s torture program, whose executive summary was published in December 2014.

Even today, however, the US government is unwilling to acknowledge any fundamental challenges to its claimed “right” to hold men at Guantánamo forever. After 9/11, the Bush administration decided that the whole world was a battlefield in its “war on terror,” and, despite the complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan last summer, the US Justice Department still claims that it can continue to hold prisoners at Guantánamo on the basis of this global “war” that has no internationally recognized legal basis.

Of the 39 men still held, just 12 have been charged in the military commission trial system that has struggled to secure any lasting convictions, Just eight men in total have been convicted, and two of those rulings have been overturned on appeal. With one exception, all those men have been released, while ten others — including five men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks — are stuck in pre-trial hearings whose closest analogy seems to be ‘Groundhog Day.’ One other man, Majid Khan, was recently sentenced after agreeing to plea deal in 2012, while another, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, was given a life sentence after a one-sided trial in which he refused to mount a defense in 2008.

The Biden administration needs to work out what to do with these men, if justice is ever to be delivered, either by moving the trials to federal court, or by agreeing plea deals at Guantánamo itself.

For the 27 other men, however, the Biden administration has no more excuses for inaction. Five of them had already been approved for release by two high-level government review processes established by President Obama before President Biden took office, and 13 more have been approved for release in the last year (five in just the last few days) by the second of these processes, the ongoing Periodic Review Boards. That’s the good news: the bad news is that, despite now holding 18 men approved for release, the administration has not released any of them, rather making a mockery of the entire process of approving people for release in the first case.

In addition, nine other men are held as “forever prisoners,” neither charged nor approved for release, and while they continue to be eligible for ongoing reviews by the PRBs, the Biden administration must accept that they too must be released if they are not to be charged, as 24 Senators and 75 members of the House of Representatives made clear in letters to President Biden last year, calling for the closure of the prison, and a recognition, finally, that it is intolerable for men to continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

Today, as the American people are, hopefully, briefly reminded of the continuing existence of Guantánamo, which has, shamefully, been largely forgotten, President Biden needs to show political courage by releasing everyone who has not been charged, and by locating a method whereby justice can be delivered in the cases of those who have been charged.

Because Guantánamo has largely been forgotten, there is no political advantage to this. Morally bankrupt Republicans will criticize him, and try to turn it to their cynical political advantage, but short-term political gain is not what is at stake here; instead, the closure of Guantánamo involves political courage, and a recognition that, while it remains open, a deep and implacable corrosion continues to eat away at America’s soul.

The absolute requirement to do what is right, even in the face of cynical Republican opposition, largely derailed President Obama’s plans to close the prison; after 20 years, however, the time for fence-sitting has come to an end. Joe Biden must do what is right, and must close Guantánamo for good.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

30 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, marking the 20th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, an occasion of great collective shame for the whole of the United States (whether people realize it or not). I provide a recap of its many grievous injustices, past and present, and call on President Biden to find the political will to finally close it once and for all.

    The good news is that 18 of the remaining 39 men have now been approved for release (13 since Biden took office, including five announced today and in the last few days); the bad news is that none of these men have yet been released, but these are steps in the right direction. Now Biden needs to finish the job of releasing everyone who hasn’t been charged, working out how to try those accused of crimes, and ridding the world of this monstrously brutal and unjust prison.

  2. Anna says...

    Hi Andy, concerning the five cleared just now, and Khalid Ahmed Qasim not cleared, even though the Pentagon authorities in charge of the reviews acknowledged that he was not a significant person in al-Qaeda or the Taliban and did not pose a significant threat. I was for the umptiest time appalled by the arguments of the Pentagon :
    He would not comply with authlorities and lacked plans for his future [sic].
    The board “encourages the detainee to immediately work toward showing improved compliance and better management of his emotions”.
    Better management of his emotions ? After so many years of torture and systematic dehumanisation ? How about bloody US authorities learning to manage their own emotions and having clear & positive plans for the future before expecting psychologically damaged prisoners to prepare any ? But no, they will continue to humiliate and damage them until the very last second they can. Nothing like hurt pride and public humiliation to push those in power to revenge on the defenceless.

    On AJE People & Power series now a very interesting documentary about a Syrian torture colonel on trial in Germany for crimes against humanity. A former US representative for human rights (or something similarly lofty) as prosecutor. Great, except that all the accusations he levels at the Assad regime also apply to his own government – certainly not quantitavely but certainly qualitively … The colonel just got life imprisonment.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I can’t even begin to tell you how disappointed I am by the PRB’s shameful decision in Khaled’s case, Anna. Condemned for refusing to be compliant enough, even though the horrors of Guantanamo, over nearly 20 years, would test anyone’s ability to be suitably docile. In the short term, of course, it doesn’t make any practical difference, as the men actually approved for release haven’t been freed, but when they are – as they must be – it will be imperative to mount a campaign for Khaled.

    I even have a campaign song already! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iypj1sSM9w0

  4. Anna says...

    Count me in – albeit not for singing, which I would not inflict even on enemies 🙂 !

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    🙂 Anna!

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    […] camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

  15. After A Year Of Biden, Why Do We Still Have Trump’s Foreign Policy? - PopularResistance.Org says...

    […] camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

  16. After a Year of Biden, We Still Have Trump-Era Foreign Policy – Investing Signal says...

    […] camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

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    […] camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remainThere is illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close the sordid chapter of American […]

  18. After a Year of Biden, We Still Have Trump-Era Foreign Policy - Free Independent News says...

    […] camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

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    […] camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

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    […] camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 largely harmless folks kidnapped all over the world, 39 prisoners stay there in unlawful, extrajudicial detention. Despite guarantees to shut this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

  21. After a Year of Biden, We Still Have Trump-Era Foreign Policy – E.P.G.N. Network says...

    […] camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

  22. Anarchist news from 300+ collectives 🏴 AnarchistFederation.net says...

    […] camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

  23. Biden adopting, reinforcing, many of Trump's initiatives - ABP News ONLINE, Latest News, Breaking News, Top Headlines, World News Today says...

    […] camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

  24. After a Year of Biden, Why Do We Still Have Trump’s Foreign Policy? – Stop the Wars at Home and Abroad! says...

    […] camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

  25. The Scotfree | After a Year of Biden, Why Do We Still Have Trump’s Foreign Policy? says...

    […] camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

  26. After a Year of Biden, Why Do We Still Have Trump’s Foreign Policy? | Mandala says...

    […] camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish version on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘Mientras Guantánamo cumple 20 años, es imprescindible que el presidente Biden encuentre la voluntad política para cerrar la prisión’: http://www.worldcantwait-la.com/worthington-mientras-gtmo-cumple-20-anos-es-imprescindible-biden-voluntad-politica.htm

  28. After a year of Biden-Why we still have Trump’s foreign policy | Thinkers' Forum USA says...

    […] at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of […]

  29. After a Year of Biden, Why Do We Still Have Trump’s Foreign Policy? | Change-Links says...

    […] camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

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    […] camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to imprison 779 mostly innocent people kidnapped around the world, 39 prisoners remain there in illegal, extrajudicial detention. Despite promises to close this sordid chapter of U.S. […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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