Joe Biden’s silence on Guantanamo Bay frustrates closure supporters as prison turns 20

WASHINGTON (AP) – Supporters of the closure of the Guantanamo detention center were optimistic when President Joe Biden took office. And they were relieved this summer after the US released a prisoner for the first time in years. Many are now becoming more and more impatient.

In the months since this release, there has been no sign of progress in closing the infamous US-based offshore prison in Cuba. This has led to heightened skepticism about Biden’s approach as the administration completes its first year of operation and the detention center reaches a milestone on Tuesday – the 20th anniversary of the arrival of the first inmates.

“President Biden announced his intention to close Guantanamo for political reasons, but did not take significant steps to close it,” said Wells Dixon, an attorney for the New York Center for Constitutional Rights, which has long played a leading role in challenging indefinite detention without charge at the base. …

“There is a lot of impatience and frustration among the defenders and people watching this,” said Daphne Eviatar, director of security for Amnesty International USA’s human rights program.

Without a more concerted effort, those looking to close the center fear a repeat of what happened under President Barack Obama. Obama has made the closure of Guantanamo an important issue since his early days in office, but has only managed to shrink it in the face of political opposition in Congress.

“We cannot forget what this country did 20 years ago and continues to do today,” Eviatar said. “Of course this administration has a lot of concerns, but this is such a flagrant violation of human rights.”

There are 39 prisoners left. This is the smallest number since the detention center’s early days, when the first groups suspected of having links with al-Qaeda or the Taliban arrived on flights from Afghanistan – in hoods, shackles and orange overalls – to where a sleepy US outpost on the southeastern coast of Cuba.

Guantanamo became the center of international outrage over prison mistreatment and torture, and because the United States insisted it could detain people indefinitely without charge during the seemingly war against al-Qaeda. would have no end. Critics included Michael Lehnert, now a retired Marine Major General, who was tasked with opening a detention center but who concluded that it was against American values ​​and interests to hold low-level fighters without charge.

“For me, the existence of Guantanamo is anathema to everything we represent, and for this reason it needs to be closed,” Lehnert said.

At its peak in 2003, the detention center held about 680 inmates. President George W. Bush has freed more than 500 people, and Obama freed 197 people before his population reduction efforts run out.

President Donald Trump canceled Obama’s order to close Guantanamo, but largely ignored the location. During his first campaign, he promised to “load him with a few bad guys,” but never sent anyone there, and said that the annual cost of maintaining the detention center was “crazy” at about $ 13 million per inmate.

WATCH: Senate Judicial Committee Held Hearings to Close Guantanamo Bay

Of the remaining prisoners, 10 are brought before a military commission in proceedings that have dragged on for years. Among them is Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the self-proclaimed organizer of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Two others are still at Guantanamo Bay, and one of them, former Maryland resident Majid Khan, is expected to serve his term next month.

The remaining 27 include 13 people who received release permits, including eight under Biden, who can now be returned to their homeland or relocated elsewhere. The two dozen have never been acquitted and never been charged, and probably never will be, a status that some Republicans continue to defend, including at a Senate hearing last month.

“We are not fighting crime. We are at war. I don’t want to torture anyone. I want to provide them with due process of law to ensure that they are at war and, if necessary, I want to hold them as long as necessary to ensure our security or as long as we believe they are no longer a threat. “- said Senator Lindsay Graham. , R.Ts.

A senior Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss domestic policy, said the National Security Council is “actively” working with defense, state and justice departments and other agencies to reduce populations within the limits imposed by Congress. Restrictions include prohibiting prisoners from returning to certain countries, including Yemen and Somalia, or sending them to the United States, even for further imprisonment.

The official said the administration is committed to shutting down the detention center, a move that began after four years of inaction under Trump.

One sign of progress is the eight approved for release as part of the Obama vetting process. Under Trump, only one detainee was acquitted, and the only one released was a Saudi sent back home as part of an earlier plea deal with the military commission.

Critics want the Biden administration to tackle the repatriation or resettlement of detainees who have been acquitted and rebuild the Department of State’s effort unit that was dismantled under Trump.

“Until I see visible signs that the administration is going to do something about it, I’m not encouraged,” said Lehnert, a retired Marine Corps general. “If there is someone in charge of the closure of Guantanamo, I have not spoken to anyone who knows them.”

Lawyers argue that the administration can decide the fate of the rest by concluding a plea agreement with those accused in the military commission’s cases and freeing the rest.

Biden’s low-key approach may be a smart strategy given the political opposition Obama has faced, says Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who, along with his students, has represented 14 Guantanamo inmates since 2005.

“President Biden seems to have learned from Obama’s mistakes by transferring one prisoner and freeing many without talking too loudly and drawing a target on his back,” Kassem said. “However, the administration needs to accelerate the pace because with one inmate a year it will not come close to closing the prison.”

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