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Cuba slams 20 years of US occupation, abuses at Guantanamo Bay

The file photo shows Detention Center Camp 6 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Cuba has denounced the ongoing US military presence at Guantanamo Bay, a desolate region near the eastern tip of the Latin American country, as it marks 20 years since the opening of a controversial detention center there.

In a post on his Twitter account on Tuesday, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said, "There are already 20 years of scandalous abuses in illegally occupied Cuban territory in the bay of #Guantánamo by the biggest violators of [human rights] in the world," and he posted a report by a group of the United Nations experts published a day earlier who unanimously censured the offshore military prison and called for its closure.

"End that heinous jail," Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla also wrote in a social media appeal, while posting a picture of detainees in orange jumpsuits kneeling between barbed wire-wrapped fences as US personnel patrolled among them.

"The US Naval Base at Guantanamo harbors a 20-year history of disgrace," he said, adding, "780 people arbitrarily detained there, without trial or due process, including minors. Not a few of them are victims of torture and degrading treatment that violates human rights."

More than a dozen independent UN experts released a statement on Monday, voicing outrage that Guantanamo was still in operation two decades after opening its gates to its first inmates.

Calling the facility's 2002-present period of operation "an ugly chapter of unrelenting human rights violations," the UN experts called on the United States to close down the detention center, return detainees home or to safe third countries, provide reparation to those arbitrarily detained and tortured, and hold those who authorized and engaged in torture accountable in accordance with international law.

"Despite forceful, repeated and unequivocal condemnation of the operation of this horrific detention and prison complex with its associated trial processes, the United States continues to detain persons many of whom have never been charged with any crime," the experts said.

They also described the site as one "of unparalleled notoriety, defined by the systematic use of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against hundreds of men brought to the site and deprived of their most fundamental rights."

Twenty years ago on January 11, the first prisoners — hooded, shackled, and clad in orange jumpsuits — arrived at the newly-built Camp X-Ray prison at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay.

The facility, which was supposed to be a temporary detention center and never meant to be permanent, was chosen because of its ambiguous legal status. It was under full control of the US military and relatively close to the mainland but beyond the reach of American courts, thus allowing detainees to be held indefinitely outside of normal laws or judicial oversight.

The Guantanamo prison, commonly known as "Gitmo," became synonymous with prisoner abuse by the United States in the early years of the so-called war on terror, gaining global notoriety for the widespread use of torture and other violations of human rights that took place within its walls.

Many detainees were subject to psychological and physical abuse — including waterboarding, beating, exposure to deafening noise, and sleep and food deprivation — as part of their "enhanced interrogation," the accounts of which were gradually leaked to the outside world by the few lawyers who visited the prison and the inmates who have since been released.

There are 39 prisoners left at the facility, down from nearly 680 that it used to hold at its peak in 2003. Most have been languishing there without charge, and proceedings for their release have been delayed at the pretrial state for years.

Questioned about the status of the closure of the site on the eve of its 20-year anniversary, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby offered few details to reporters, but said the process was still on track.

"I would say the administration remains dedicated to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay," Kirby said. "Nothing's changed about that. We are in a review right now about the way forward there, so I won't get ahead of that."

"Guantanamo has proven itself to be a costly moral and strategic failure; after two disastrous and detrimental decades, it must finally be closed," Michael Breen, president and CEO of Human Rights First, told Newsweek.

"The presence of the prison at Guantanamo really shows the hypocrisy of the entire enterprise known as the global war on terror," Phyllis Bennis, director of the Institute for Policy Studies' New Internationalism Project," also told the American weekly news magazine.

Washington's promises of closing down the site go back to the first tenure of former President Barack Obama, between 2009 and 2013. Obama had made the closing of Guantanamo one of his top priorities and issued an executive order to do so soon after taking office in 2009. However, he failed to achieve that goal by the end of his second term in the face of stiff opposition in Congress. His successor, Donald Trump, rescinded Obama's order to close Guantanamo.

Human rights advocates have also expressed increasing frustration with US President Joe Biden for failing to deliver on a pledge to close Guantanamo Bay, leaving inmates languishing in the notorious offshore prison with no end in sight.

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