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The 'Forever Prisoners' of Guantanamo

The notorious prison camp in Cuba is 20 years old. Over the years, several plans to close it have been rejected. For the detainees, little has changed in the last two decades. Oliver Sallet reports from Guantanamo Bay.
The Guantanamo detention camp opened in January 2002 and has been accused of many human rights violations since (FILE)

The Guantanamo detention camp opened in January 2002 and has been accused of many human rights violations since (FILE)

Mohamedou Ould Slahi spent 14 years behind bars. He was tortured for 70 days and interrogated for 18 hours a day for three years. He lived in Germany prior to his arrest and was suspected of being a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative involved in the September 11 attacks, although this was never proven. 

He was never charged or convicted during his 14 years in Guantanamo. The Mauritanian, who is now 50, was eventually released — but was never compensated for his stolen life.

Defense attorney Nancy Hollander's most high-profile case continues to haunt her to this day. Slahi's story recently made it to the big screen as a motion picture. His crime was taking part in a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and answering a phone call on Osama bin Laden's satellite phone. This of course does not cast him in the best light, his lawyer recalls, but it also was not enough to indict him.

His is a typical story in Guantanamo.

In the movie 'The Mauritanian', Mahamedou Ould Slahi is played by actor Tahar Rahim

In the movie 'The Mauritanian', Mahamedou Ould Slahi is played by actor Tahar Rahim

Hollander says that Guantanamo illustrates that the US is a country that is "not one that respects the rule of law,"  labeling it a "disastrous situation." 

This applies not only to the 13 detainees who are being held without charges and have been awaiting their release for years but also to alleged perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, the so-called "forever prisoners," who are also still awaiting trial  20 years after the attacks.

Legal system systematically suspended

This lack of rule of law was no accident but rather a goal of the US administration under President George W. Bush at the time, according to Amnesty International's Guantanamo expert Daphne Eviatar.

"The Bush administration set up an offshore prison specifically to get around the rules of the United States legal system," says Eviatar.

She denounced extensive human rights abuses at Guantanamo in an Amnesty report that documents the indefinite detention of detainees without charge, as well as the torturing of inmates. While there is no publically available proof to back this up, Eviatar did say that various investigations, including one by the US Senate Intelligence Committee, have already documented the brutal torture of dozens of men at Guantanamo.

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspected mastermind behind the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspected mastermind behind the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000

 The US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been in existence for more than 100 years. It was not until January 2002, a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks, that it was expanded into a detention center that has become notorious.

Anthony Natale, who is defending accused al-Qaeda operative Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in court, speaks candidly about his disappointment with Guantanamo: "We're ashamed that everything that made this country one that we could say was a free country, that had equal justice for all, has abandoned all of that."

Press censorship and strict secrecy

Anyone who wants to see Guantanamo firsthand has several obstacles to overcome.

For a start, the weekly charter planes from Washington are not allowed to fly through Cuban airspace. Planes must first fly around Cuba to the east and are not allowed to set course for the military base until they are on final approach.

DW only received permission to visit on very short notice after weeks of security checks. Prior to departure, the "ground rules" had to be signed. These stipulate what journalists can expect in Guantanamo: no freedom of movement and, above all, no freedom of the press.

We were not even allowed to see the prison from the outside, and all information from inside is subject to the strictest secrecy, which is inevitably deeply frustrating for the lawyers of the detainees.

Plans, plans, plans

January 11 marks a grim anniversary for the Guantanamo detention center. It raises the question as to why the camp is still allowed to exist today despite the obvious violations of human rights and the rule of law that occur here  — and above all, given that the US war on terror in Afghanistan is over and its troops have withdrawn. This was the justification for the detention center's existence in the first place.

The first plans to close down Guantanamo came at the end of George W. Bush's administration. Barack Obama promised to close it several times, but soon lost his majority in Congress to the Republicans, who in turn introduced a law that said "no one who has ever been in Guantanamo can come to the US for any purpose, trial, medical et cetera," explains Nancy Hollander. This, she says, makes it legally impossible to move inmates to the US.

Will the US leave Guantanamo?

Will the US leave Guantanamo?

Calls to back up words with actions

President Donald Trump subsequently changed course and announced that Guantanamo would remain open. According to Republicans, Guantanamo continues to protect against terrorist attacks and that transferring inmates to the US would be too dangerous. Guantanamo opponents however argue that the very existence of the camp radicalizes young Muslims.

The next reversal on Guantanamo policy came under President Joe Biden, who announced through his spokeswoman after taking office that he planned to close the camp during his term in office. But when the US Senate Intelligence Committee met recently to address the issue, not a single member of the Biden administration was on hand. This shows, above all, where the priorities of the government are, which so far is not following its words with action, says Nancy Hollander.

US defense lawyer Nancy Hollander

US defense lawyer Nancy Hollander

Imprisoned despite a lack of evidence

With its failed infrastructure program and the approaching midterm elections amid low polling numbers, the Biden administration arguably has bigger problems to deal with than Guantanamo. What the future holds for "Gitmo" is completely open. Some of the prisoners could be released as planned. Others could be returned to their countries of origin.

Daphne Eviatar of Amnesty International says she is optimistic about the future. "But as that number gets smaller and smaller it will become more and more clear and how irrational it is, how absurd it is," she adds.

What is also clear is that apart from the well-known moral reasons, one prisoner at Guantanamo costs US taxpayers $13 million a year.

It would be cheaper to have them imprisoned in the US, but that, again, aside from the legal hurdles, is not the answer either, says Nancy Hollander, who calls for the immediate release of all Guantanamo detainees.

"We can't hold people for 20 years without any charge because, according to the US, there is not enough evidence to charge them but we somehow know they're dangerous."

The question of Guantanamo's future can no longer be answered with rational arguments. Like so much in the US, it has become a political pawn in whose shadow the "forever prisoners"have been awaiting trial for 20 years.

This article was originally written in German.

Courtesy: DW

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