U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he signed an order to keep open the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which his predecessor, Barack Obama, unsuccessfully tried to close.
“I just signed, prior to walking in, an order directing (Defense) Secretary (Jim) Mattis ... to re-examine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay,” Trump said in his State of the Union speech.
The prison on the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, a base in Cuban territory and never returned, has been used for years to detain accused terrorists and enemy combatants.
It has also attracted massive criticism for human rights abuses including "enhanced interrogation techniques" waterboarding, walling, sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation and cramped confinement. Currently, 41 detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay.
The executive order authorized the U.S. military to add detainees and suggested the possibility that captured Islamic State militants could be sent there for the first time.
Former President Barack Obama signed an order on his first full day in office in 2009 ordering efforts to shutter Guantanamo within a year, but his plan was thwarted by mostly Republican opposition in Congress. Instead, his administration reduced the inmate population to 41 from 242 during his eight years in office.
As a presidential candidate, Trump vowed "to load it up with some bad dudes." Since he became president a year ago, there is no indication any new prisoners have arrived.
"In the past, we have foolishly released hundreds and hundreds of dangerous terrorists, only to meet them again on the battlefield - including the ISIS leader, [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi, who we captured, who we had, who we released," Trump said in the speech, referring to the extremist Islamic State group group.
Unlike what Trump claimed, Baghdadi was held in a U.S.-run prison in Iraq when he was captured at the beginning of the Iraq war and was never sent to Guantanamo. He was released a year later on the basis that he was a civilian agitator rather than a military threat at the time.
Civil liberties groups immediately denounced the executive order, and the Center for Constitutional Rights said it would file a legal challenge.
"In trying to give new life to a prison that symbolizes America's descent into torture and unlawful indefinite detention, Trump will not make this country any safer," said Hina Shamsi, a director at the American Civil Liberties Union.