Ten Years of Injustice: Over 90 Percent of Gitmo Detainees Imprisoned for over a Decade
Ten years ago this week, a batch of men arrived at the U.S. military prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The CIA had held these men incommunicado in prisons across the world, tortured and hidden from the public and even the International Committee of the Red Cross.
With this anniversary, 57 of the 61 detainees remaining at Guantanamo (over 90 percent) have been at the prison for over a decade. Only a handful have ever been charged with or tried for any crimes, and those few have faced a military commission system rife with procedural confusion, skewed interpretation of war crimes, and government interference.
Since the prison opened in 2002, detainees have been abused, tortured, and pushed through essentially sham trials—on the rare occasion any were actually charged with crimes. They became symbols of American overreach and abuse in the post-9/11 “war on terror.” Despite evidence that many were imprisoned by mistake or turned over to the United States for enormous bounties, opponents of closing Gitmo continue to demonize the detainee population as “the worst of the worst.”
Closing the prison was once a bipartisan goal. While campaigning for president in 2008, both then-Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain agreed that Guantanamo should be closed. President George W. Bush felt the same way, as do national security experts across the political spectrum. They all agreed that the prison was too costly (currently $7 million per detainee annually), has inspired terrorist propaganda and recruitment, and has damaged relationships with counterterrorism partners.
Since President Obama’s election, the prison has become a partisan wedge issue and Congress has instituted restrictions on transferring detainees to the United States (even for trial or medical emergency), essentially preventing the facility’s closure. So the indefinite detainees are stranded at Guantanamo, and the few who have been charged with crimes watch their cases languish in the flawed military commission system.
Six of the detainees transferred to Guantanamo ten years ago this week are in pre-trial hearings. That is to say, they have pre-trial hearings when the court isn’t working through the various complications that perpetually halt the hearings. For example, the case against Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, the accused USS Cole bombing planner, resumed pre-trial hearings this week after an 18-month hiatus.
There is also the not insignificant matter of the detainees’ torture. Nashiri and all of the five 9/11 accused were tortured by the CIA, as detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s interrogation and detention program. This continues to taint the government’s prosecutions at Guantanamo, and will certainly factor into the inevitable appeals.
Many say that the cases against Nashiri and the five accused 9/11 plotters, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, may take years to get to trial. This is a good bet considering the myriad procedural problems inherent in the slapdash military commissions, technology issues, plus government interference such as the CIA censoring courtroom proceedings, the FBI attempting to recruit a defense team member as a mole, and installing listening devices in lawyer-client meeting rooms, among others.
Federal courts in the United States could surely handle these cases, as they have handled more than 500 terrorism-related cases since 9/11. But Congressional restrictions prevent this, as well as the administration’s plan to move the remaining detainees to a prison inside the United States.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has decided to step up transfers of detainees cleared by all relevant U.S. intelligence and military agencies. The administration has also sped up the long-delayed Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearings to determine if the remaining detainees pose a threat to the United States and its interests.
Cleared detainees should be transferred as soon as possible and PRB hearings should continue with their second round. But most importantly, Congress should stop playing politics and work with the Obama Administration to come to an agreement on what should be done with the remaining detainees. The military commissions should be scuttled, and indefinite detention is not a fallback option.
Another decade is another ten-year stain on America’s standing in the world.