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News > U.S.

Guantanamo: 21 Years of Frustrated Search for Justice

  • Guantanamo base.

    Guantanamo base. | Photo: X/ @Christy4Change

Published 7 November 2023

The United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concern about the lack of a planned closure date for the facilities

More than two decades after Guantanamo received its first detainees in 2002, this U.S. prison on Cuban soil continues to grapple with the challenge of delivering justice.


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"Guantanamo is a symbol of what not to do," summarizes the coordinator of the defense teams at the base, Brigadier General Jackie Thompson, in the same week when a new preliminary hearing for the eventual trial of the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and three alleged accomplices is scheduled.

Reaching Guantanamo involves a Pentagon-chartered flight that skirts the eastern tip of Cuba to avoid its airspace. The ferry crossing the bay thereafter brings the visitor face to face with two contrasting realities.

On one side, the beauty of the landscape, with hills covered in trees against the intense blue of the sea. On the other, the barbed wire, checkpoints, and restricted area signs of the facility, which give it an industrial complex appearance, thanks to the desalination plant and the power and gas plants that enable the base to be self-sufficient.

The residential area includes a McDonald's, a bowling alley, a golf course, a pool, a gym, a post office, a shared chapel for various faiths, a school, a supermarket, three outdoor cinemas, and even a souvenir shop.

The former Camp X-Ray, immortalized by its open-air cages with detainees packed in orange jumpsuits, still stands. Overgrown with vegetation, the prison that drew the attention of human rights defenders prohibits the taking of pictures, even for residents.

There were once around 780 detainees on the entire base, and the remaining 30 are now housed in Camps 5 and 6. The former is for those considered "high-value," such as those accused of the 9/11 attacks, and the latter is for lower-profile inmates.

Military commissions have filed charges against eleven detainees, with ten awaiting trial. Sixteen have been recommended for eventual transfer to a third country, while three are deemed "indefinite detainees" who haven't been charged and cannot be transferred.

They were brought to Guantanamo as part of the "war on terrorism" initiated by former President George W. Bush (2001-2009) after 9/11, which claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people. However, many of their cases have stalled due to the questionable methods used to extract information from them.

"The United States was trying to see if another attack would occur, and those making decisions got involved in the enhanced interrogation techniques program, which some euphemistically refer to as a torture program. The decision of those individuals is the reason we are still here today," emphasizes Thompson.

His priority, he says, is to save the lives of those who could be sentenced to death, facilitate the repatriation of those eligible for it, and ensure dignified conditions of detention.

Humanitarian Criticisms

Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (CCPR) expressed concern about the lack of a planned closure date for the facilities and the fact that some detainees have been there for two decades without being tried or charged.

In its fifth periodic report on the United States, the committee called on the country to end this system of indefinite detention, provide detainees with guarantees for a fair trial, and expedite both the transfer of eligible detainees and the closure of the facility.

The fate of Guantanamo is linked to the will of the Presidency and Congress, but neither the administrations of Barack Obama (2009-2017) nor Donald Trump (2017-2021), nor now that of Joe Biden, have deemed it a priority.

An official from the Department of Defense admits that closing the detention center is not easy. The law prohibits the use of funds for this purpose and for transferring detainees to the United States, and there is political resistance. In 2009, when Obama tried to close it, the Senate opposed it unanimously, with 6 votes in favor and 90 against.

Meanwhile, Guantanamo looks ahead. At Camp Justice, which houses the military commissions that try these detainees, barracks under construction are being prepared to accommodate the increased number of people that the trial of the 9/11 attacks would mobilize, still without a set date.

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