Guantanamo turns 22 today. Don't forget those still detained there
On January 11, 2002, 20 prisoners landed on the sun-scorched tarmac of the US’s long-forgotten military base in Guantanamo, Cuba.
Shackled, hooded, and gagged they had been flown halfway around the world to what would become the US’s most infamous extrajudicial prison. Twenty-two years later, the prison remains open, a living testament to humanity's dual capacity for shameless cruelty and surprising resilience.
I think about those words every day. They haunt me and remind me that of the 780 men who have been held at Guantanamo, 30 still remain. Of those 30, 16 have been approved for release and never charged with crimes; 3 are classified as “forever” prisoners; and only 10 have been charged and face what every expert believes is a broken military commission. Only 1 man has been convicted.
What was created to protect the US and bring about swift justice for the attack of 9/11 has turned into a dark stain in American history.
"Guantanamo remains open, and has become a model for other illegal detention facilities and practices around the world, and a blueprint for governments who wish to evade international human rights laws"
I haven’t forgotten those men who remain, but it seems most of the world has, despite the Senate’s Torture Report, a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, a recent United Nations Report, and numerous books, films, and profiles.
Cast against the backdrop of 9/11, Guantanamo’s opening marked a dark turning point in American history as the US abandoned international laws and treaties and resorted to widespread kidnapping, invasive military incursions, an international network of black sites, and the use of torture in its fight in the War on Terror.
After years of unchecked abuses, the US then turned to unmanned drone strikes as a means of swift, extrajudicial executions.
Guantanamo has remained open under four US presidents, three of whom made public pledges to close the prison. With President Biden’s inauguration in 2021, we had a moment of hope that the US would try to reconcile its past transgressions and finally close Guantanamo.
In 2001, former Guantanamo prisoners penned an open letter to President Biden, with urgency and hope, implored him to not forget the men still imprisoned there and to close one of the US’s darkest chapters in history.
We recently sat down for an exclusive i/view with Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who grabbed headlines for being detained without charge at Guantánamo Bay from 2002 until 2016. This is what he had to say about the infamous US military prison. Do you agree? (Full interview coming soon.) pic.twitter.com/bUiBJzavUp— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) March 28, 2022
But three years into Biden’s term as president, Guantanamo remains open, and remarkably, has become a model for other illegal detention facilities and practices around the world, and a blueprint for governments who wish to evade international human rights laws, avoid accountability, and shape media coverage based on misinformation and lies.
Over the past three months, it has been almost impossible not to draw similarities between Guantanamo and the Israeli military’s systematic use of arbitrary detention, torture, physical abuse, and degrading and inhuman treatment against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
The NGO Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor has described the mass detention and enforced disappearances of Palestinians in camps as “a new Guantanamo-like prison”. So many heart-wrenching, first-person accounts exist online, including a particularly powerful one by the Palestinian poet by Mosab Abu Toha.
It's not far-fetched to say that decades of impunity for Guantanamo by Israel’s closest allies in Washington has emboldened its inhumane treatment of Palestinian prisoners.
Over the past two decades, some of the world’s most esteemed journalists have written about Guantanamo, uncovering the systematic use of torture, abuse, and a reckless abandonment of moral authority the US once enjoyed.
But now, after twenty-two years, meaningful media coverage of Guantanamo has all but dried up.
Recently, some of the most impactful reporting has come from the findings of Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights who visited Guantanamo.
She found enormous issues remain in health care, inhumane and arbitrary standard operating procedures, persistent shackling, and even in the naming of prisoners who are called by Interment Serial Numbers, not by name.
All of these and many other issues amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law. She also found that current prisoners and survivors continue to live with a deep, profound psychological trauma, enormous anxiety, and pain caused by years of torture, inhumane treatment, and arbitrary and indefinite imprisonment.
For many prisoners, the dividing line between the torture of the past and their present conditions are paper thin. And yet, Guantanamo remains open.
"A reckoning is long overdue—a moment where acknowledgement of wrongdoing, sincere apologies to the victims, compensation and reparation for the survivors, and a commitment to justice and accountability are non-negotiable"
Around the world, Guantánamo is now a symbol of racial and religious injustice, abuse, and disregard for the rule of law. The US’s inability to close Guantanamo, release the full details of the torture program, and provide justice and redress for the many victims has shown other countries a path to open similar facilities and to avoid accountability.
This is why we cannot forget Guantanamo and must continue to fight for its closure, and justice for its victims.
In recent years, there has been a chilling of access to Guantanamo to reporters of all kinds. The denial of access plays into a veiled reality that appears to be carefully curated by the US government.
The strategy is clear: prevent meaningful new reporting to preserve established narratives, delay and deny calls for accountability or deeper investigations, and ensure the impunity of the architects of the War on Terror.
Nations across the globe must raise their voices in unison and demand the immediate closure of Guantanamo and full transparency of past and current detention policies. If they do, they will be joining a chorus of five US defense secretaries, eight US secretaries of state, six US national security advisors, five US chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and dozens of retired US generals and admirals who have concluded that Guantanamo and the military commissions designed to try prisoners there are irredeemably tainted by design.
On the latest episode of @TheNewArabVoice, we spoke with @GuantanamoAndy about how the US circumvented the law and tortured and abused #Guantanamo inmates.— The New Arab Voice (@TheNewArabVoice) June 27, 2023
Listen in full: https://t.co/RyjiBkzsz4 pic.twitter.com/JfM0EHMQSK
Twenty-two years ago, Marine Corps Major General Michael Lehnert was tasked with setting up and opening the first prison camp at Guantanamo. Last January, he spoke at length before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the need to close Guantanamo responsibly.
He closed by commenting about how the failure to close Guantánamo is a painful reflection of his nation’s values. “Who we are cannot be separated from what we do.”
A reckoning is long overdue—a moment where acknowledgement of wrongdoing, sincere apologies to the victims, compensation and reparation for the survivors, and a commitment to justice and accountability are non-negotiable. This is the only path that can lead to the closure of Guantanamo.
On January 9, 2024, the Center for Victims of Torture, in collaboration with an impressive coalition of 90 US-based and international non-governmental organisations, penned a letter to President Biden urging the permanent closure of Guantánamo Bay.
Expressing deep concern over the lack of progress in the past year, the letter implores President Biden to act swiftly, underscoring the pivotal role this decision will play in defining his legacy and addressing the longstanding damage caused by US policies.
The demand for accountability, justice, and the closure of Guantanamo is not an act of forgetfulness; rather, it is a testament to our unwavering commitment to forge a future where the principles of justice and human rights prevail over oppression and silence.
Let us stand as we always should have—steadfast for a future where the echoes of "Don't forget us here, brother" are replaced by the triumphant cadence of justice served, and Guantanamo Bay is but a distant memory in the chronicles of a more just, compassionate, and equitable world.
Together, we wield the power to close Guantanamo, to bring forth justice and accountability, and to manifest a future where the principles of justice and human rights stand tall against the shadows of injustice.
Mansoor Adayfi is a writer, advocate, and former Guantánamo detainee, held for around 15 years without charges as an enemy combatant. Adayfi was released to Serbia in 2016. In 2019, Adayfi won the Richard J. Margolis Award for nonfiction writers of social justice journalism. His memoir “Don’t Forge Us Here” was published in 2021. He continues to advocate for the closure of Guantanamo, he works as CAGE’s Guantanamo Project coordinator, and outreach coordinator for Guantanamo Survivors Fund (GSF).
Follow him on Twitter: @MansoorAdayfi
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.