Biden must succeed where Obama did not and close Guantanamo

Biden must succeed where Obama did not and close Guantanamo
Comment: Guantanamo has now been open for almost two decades, impacting the lives of hundreds of Muslims, their families, and communities as a whole, writes Mobashra Tazamal.
6 min read
04 Dec, 2020
The detention centre at Guantanamo Bay opened in 2002, almost 20 years ago [Getty]
January 2021 will mark 19 years since the US opened the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Almost two decades later, this site of egregious crimes remains open, with 40 men still imprisoned there. Established by the Bush administration in 2002, the prison has functioned largely outside the purview of international law, as the US government built a Kafkaesque "justice" system to justify the illegal imprisonment of 780 Muslim boys and men in total.

The detention camp at Guantanamo Bay is now widely seen as a stain on American democracy and history. However, a careful look at the context surrounding the prison and the reality that it remains open demonstrates that Guantanamo did not come about in a vacuum. The prison's existence and the torutre that occurred as part of the CIA's rendition detention and interrogation programme stems from the racist and Islamophobic logic of the "War on Terror," which has criminalised and dehumanised Muslims across the globe. 

Often, criticism of Guantanamo has focused on the structure itself and the taxpayer costs involved in maintaining the prison. The Bridge Initiative recently released a data project that provides a different lens into understanding why Guantanamo must be shut down. The "Numbers and Narratives" project centres the individuals detained in the prison without trial, and demonstrates the "global impact Guantanamo has had on the lives of hundreds of Muslims, their families, and communities as a whole."

To illustrate the truly global nature of the US-led "War on Terror" that underpinned the establishment of the military prison, Bridge's data project found that the 780 Muslim boys and men detained cam from over 72 countries. Over half of the detainees, 450, came from just three countries: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

Of the 731 detainees who have been released, many were not allowed to return to their country of origin

Of the 731 detainees who have been released, many were not allowed to return to their country of origin, and instead were sent to third countries where they have been "forced to make their lives in unknown lands" such as Bulgaria, Estonia, and Cape Verde. Nearly 22 percent of detainees were sent somewhere other than their country of birth, a place where they do not hold citizenship, and 10 detainees have been repatriated to an unknown country. 

In terms of demographics, the Bridge data project found that nearly half of the detainees are between the ages of 21 and 30 on arrival at the camp. The project also revealed, shockingly, that one of the oldest detainees, an Afghan national named Mohammed Sadiq who has since been released, arrived at the prison aged 89.

Sadiq reportedly suffered from a depressive disorder, senile dementia, and osteoarthritis. According to the government's account of his arrest, Sadiq was arrested for being in the vicinity of a satellite phone and a list of phone numbers he claims he knew nothing about. That's all it took for an 89-year-old man to be forcibly removed from his home, put on a plane and flown halfway across the world to be detained for six months.

Read more: Who is Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi? A profile of a Guantanamo detainee

It is difficult to capture the trauma experienced by Sadiq and hundreds of others like him.

Some of the youngest detained at Guantanamo were teenagers: Abdul Qudus, Asad Ullah, and Naqib Ullah were all 15 when they were imprisoned by the US military. They were children when they were captured, which only adds to the list of crimes committed by the US.

One of the most publicized cases involving a minor at Guantanamo was that of Canadian citizen, Omar Khadr, who was also 15 at the time of his capture. He remained imprisoned there for 10 years and was subject to abuse in during custody, drawing 
condemnation from UN officials, human rights groups, and even Canadian courts.

In 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada found that Khadr's interrogation "offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects". His ordeal in Guantanamo as part of the wider "War on Terror" campaign tells a similar story to the hundreds of Muslims captured, tortured, and imprisoned by US authorities without cause, charge, or trial.

Mental illness is another aspect examined in the "Numbers and Narratives" data project, as the Bridge Initiative found that "12 percent of detainees - or 93 detained individuals - were documented as living with a mental illness during their imprisonment." The organisation did note that this information is incomplete, remains biased, and requires scruitiny given it's coming from the very entities responsbile for the torture: in the miltiary prison "the role of psychiatrists and psychologists at Guantanamo was both that of torturer and provider of care."

One of the most persistent issues when it comes to investigating and researching Guantanamo is the lack of transparency in the military commissions system. This is something lawyers of detainees have repeatedly underlined, and the US government has consistently undermined the legal process. These men's illegal imprisonment is now approaching its third decade, and the legal proceedings that exist are still stuck in the pre-trial phase.

The legal proceedings that exist are still stuck in the pre-trial phase

While we can put into numbers the cost to taxpayers of keeping Guantanamo open ($6 billion since 2002, and its current annual costs are $380 million), we cannot quantify the inhumane treatment 780 boys and men experienced. No amount of money can rectify this horrific ongoing episode or give back the time stolen. As of today, 28 of the remaining 40 detainees are "forever prisoners, held in indefinite Law-of-War detention and charged with no crimes". Of those 28, five have been recommended for transfer. Imprisoning these men without charge or trial is a grave violation of international law and of their human rights. 

During his campaign, President-elect Joe Biden expressed his support for closing the prison, a pledge that was also made and left unfulfilled by his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. The 44th President of the United States faced great opposition from Congress but also made what has been described as "series of political maneuvers," including defending the military commissions system and tacitly approving a role for indefinite detention. This inhibited any efforts to shut down the Guantanamo apparatus.

The hope is that the upcoming Democratic administration, if accompanied with a Congress that pledges to work with the President, will commit to this promise and finally 
shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The time is long overdue.

Mobashra Tazamal is a researcher on Islamophobia at The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Independent, Middle East Eye, and AltMuslimah.

Follow her on Twitter:@mobbiemobes

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.