During a recent demonstration outside the White House calling for the closure of the U.S. military prison at the Guantanamo Bay naval base on the island of Cuba, a teenager approached a colleague and asked what the protest was about. He told her that he had never heard of the detention center.
It’s been 20 years since Guantanamo opened, and four presidential administrations, but to those born since then, its horror story sounds more like the plot of a fictional horror movie than reality. This is a shameful legacy that we simply cannot pass on to future generations.
Opened in response to the September 11 attacks, Guantanamo held nearly 780 Muslim men and boys. Before their detention, many were kidnapped, disappeared and brutally tortured in secret US-run prisons or so-called allies in the “war on terror”. At Guantanamo, they were tortured, few were charged with crimes, and no one received a fair trial. The Kafkaesque military commissions set up to try them proved ineffective and unfair, denying the defendants an impartial arbiter and access to critical evidence. Meanwhile, the families of 9/11 victims have been waiting in vain for justice.
Amnesty International and many other organisations around the world have fought stubbornly to close prisons since their inception. President Joe Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, has promised to shut it down, but so far has not done so.
The Biden administration removed a detainee from prison in July, but has yet to re-create the office of the special envoy for prison closures at the State Department. Instead, the government recently announced plans to build a new court at Guantanamo to continue the work of the military council — the exact opposite of the blueprint for closing the place.
It’s not just about shutting down Guantanamo. It also involves taking responsibility for violations committed in its environment. Testimonies from a number of former detainees, including Majid Khan, Abu Zubayda and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, were made public last year, describing mistreatment at US-run “black spots” abroad and in Guantanamo. Abu Zubaydah’s story is told in a PBS documentary titled “Prisoner Forever,” the torture of Slahi, now best-selling author and human rights defender, depicted in the film “The Mauritanian,” while Khan told the jury about persistent stress positions, beatings, force-feeding with a tube filled with hot sauce, and sodomy with a garden hose.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled on civil cases in which Italy, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland and Romania were involved in torture and enforced disappearances in U.S. extradition and secret detention programs, but there has never been any meaningful accountability for the U.S. From those who authorize torture at the highest levels of government to those who practice illegal “enhanced interrogation techniques”, no one has ever been held accountable for the crimes committed. This should begin with the declassification and full release of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA torture.
39 men remain in Guantanamo. Thirteen people are still detained indefinitely, despite having been allowed to transfer out more than a decade ago. Twelve face charges from the military council, while the other 14 live in hell: not yet allowed to transfer, but never charged with a crime. Their predicament is a vestige of the overriding principles that have prevailed at Guantanamo from the start – cruelty and arbitrariness.
The U.S. government must act quickly to correct this mistake. It must commit to resolving every detainee’s case without delay and in accordance with international law by transferring and releasing them. Alternatively, if there is sufficient admissible evidence to prosecute an internationally recognized criminal offense, it must be done through a fair judicial settlement in a duly constituted federal court without resorting to the death penalty.
Guantanamo remains an indelible stain on American history, and the U.S. government must now close this chapter and never repeat it. President Biden owes all of us — those who have experienced or watched Guantanamo in horror over the years, and new generations and descendants who are just learning about it — to shut it down once and for all.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.