Pressed to remove ‘stain’ on US human rights record, Biden renews push to close Guantanamo

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
The Biden administration has launched a formal review of the future of the notorious US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. (file photo)

The White House has announced that President Joe Biden intends to shut down the notorious US military prison at Guantanamo Bay by the time he leaves office, a tall task that the Obama administration failed to achieve nearly a decade ago.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday that it was the “intention” of the Biden administration to shutter the offshore prison, which was set up in January 2002 to hold people suspected of ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Psaki gave no timeline for the planned closure, telling reporters that officials from the Department of Defense, the Justice Department and other agencies would conduct a “robust” review of the facility.

The Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, also known as “Gitmo,” became synonymous with prisoner abuse by the United States in the early years of the so-called war on terror, because of harsh “interrogation methods” that human rights advocates say amounted to torture.

The administration of former President George W. Bush had selected Guantanamo, a desolate place near the eastern tip of Cuba, because it was under full control of the US military and relatively close to the mainland, but beyond the reach of American courts.

The idea was that if the detainees -- who were being captured and transferred in droves from Afghanistan and elsewhere --were held away from US soil, they would have no legal right to seek a judge’s order of habeas corpus, which provides protection against unlawful imprisonment.

The Guantanamo detainees were subjected to abuse, humiliation and torture as part of their interrogations, the accounts of which were gradually exposed to the outside world by the few inspectors who visited the prison and some of the inmates who were later released.

The prison’s continued existence, critics say, is a reminder to the world of harsh interrogation practices and torture methods by the United States that former President Barack Obama once said were a “stain on our broader record.”

The renewed push to close down the prison is seen as an attempt by the Biden administration to remove that stain from America’s global image.

Aides familiar with internal discussions on the issue said they expected President Biden to sign an executive order in the coming weeks or months to formally revive the Guantanamo-closure policy of his former boss.

Obama had made the closing of Guantanamo his top priority and one of his first executive orders when he assumed office in 2009. However, he failed to achieve that goal by the end of his second term.

Donald Trump, however, reversed that policy as soon as he took office in 2017. “We're gonna load it up with some bad dudes, believe me,” Trump had said during his 2016 campaign. He kept the controversial prison open during his four years in office.

Protesters dressed as Guantanamo detainees rally to demand the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp outside the White House in Washington DC, January 11, 2018. 

Of the 779 inmates that have been held, without a charge or trial, at Guantanamo since 2001, only 40 remain there today.  Most of the men have been languishing in the facility for nearly two decades. Proceedings for these inmates have been delayed at the pretrial state for years.

National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne acknowledged on Friday that the closure of the offshore prison was no easy task and would take time.

“We are undertaking an NSC process to assess the current state of play that the Biden administration has inherited from the previous administration, in line with our broader goal of closing Guantanamo,” she said. “There will be a robust interagency process to move forward on this, but we need to have the right people seated to do this important work.”

Experts say the new administration will encounter the same steep political and legal obstacles that the Obama administration faced in attempting to shut down the prison.

“Politics has played a tremendous part in making Guantanamo as dysfunctional as it is. I think there are also vested interests inside, not so much the Department of Defense, but a much lower level,” Michel Paradis, a senior attorney for the Department of Defense who has represented Guantanamo detainees, told PBS in a recent interview.

“There is a kind of political and legal vandalism that Guantanamo has attracted. And the, and that's just something that's made it an incredibly intractable problem for a number of years,” he added.

There have been cases where some of the inmates were cleared to be transferred to third countries, but they continue to be held at Guantanamo, the lawyer said. That is partly because the Trump administration closed what was called the Guantanamo transfer office, an office in the State Department that was responsible for finding new places for the detainees, four years go, he added.

These men, who have been cleared for transfer, have been theoretical targets for prosecution since 2010 without any action by either the Obama or Trump administrations.

“And I think it's really just a startling feature of Guantanamo and the military commissions that we actually are having fairly realistic conversations about the 9/11 case not actually being resolved until the people who were not yet born on September 11th are approaching middle age,” Paradis noted.

“And I think that's, that's a tragedy. That's a deep tragedy for this country. It's a tragedy for the victims…. And it's a scar on our country that has yet to heal. And Guantanamo is the primary reason that scar continues to fester,” he lamented.

In contrast to Obama, Biden has not made the issue one of his early priorities as he grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.

More than a hundred human rights organizations signed a letter to Biden early this month, calling on him to close Guantanamo and end the indefinite detention of suspects held in the maximum-security prison.

“Guantanamo continues to cause escalating and profound damage to the men who still languish there, and the approach it exemplifies continues to fuel and justify bigotry, stereotyping and stigma,” according to the letter.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration can overcome the obstacles and make good on his promise to close the notorious prison once and for all.

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