by Derek Gilna
In his State of the Union address in January 2018, President Donald Trump announced that he had signed an executive order to ensure the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, commonly known as Gitmo, would remain open – keeping a promise made during his election campaign to maintain the facility and “load it up with some bad dudes.”
As President-elect, Trump had criticized the administration of former President Barack Obama for reducing the number of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay – of whom most had not been charged with any crime, much less convicted – calling for “no further releases.” The Obama administration resettled 196 detainees from Gitmo to the custody of law enforcement or military forces in other countries, a practice that Trump had mischaracterized as their “release.”
“These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield,” he tweeted in early 2017.
Trump signed his executive order on January 30, 2018. But just four months later, his administration repatriated Ahmed al-Darbi to Saudi Arabia. Al-Darbi’s brother-in-law, Khalid al-Mihdhar, was one of the hijackers of the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Trump’s executive order announced an intention contrary to the policy of the Obama administration, which had pledged to close Guantanamo Bay. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.14]. As a practical matter, experts opined that not much will change with the new order. While Gitmo was never closed, its prisoner population was significantly reduced by the same type of transfer that the Trump administration used with al-Darbi.
Opened in 2002, Gitmo has confined a total of around 780 detainees over the years. Supporters of keeping the prison open said some of the prisoners resettled by the Obama administration have since been released from custody in the countries to which they were transferred, and have rejoined the fight against the U.S.
No new prisoners have been sent to the Gitmo facility in over a decade. Forty detainees currently remain at the prison.
According to Trump, “Terrorists who do things like place bombs in civilian hospitals are evil. When possible, we annihilate them.... When necessary, we must be able to detain and question them. But we must be clear: Terrorists are not merely criminals. They are unlawful enemy combatants. And when captured overseas, they should be treated like the terrorists they are.”
His executive order gave the Pentagon until April 30, 2018 to come up with policies regarding continued detention at Guantanamo. However, by May 2, 2018 – the day that al-Darbi was repatriated – the Department of Defense said it was only in “the final stages” of preparing those recommended policies.
“I’m not working that issue right now,” said Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
His department, though, claimed that Syrian revolutionary forces backed by the U.S. against the regime of Bashar al-Assad have captured over 400 fighters, and one has links to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As to whether they will end up at Gitmo, Mattis stated, “That’s being worked principally by the State Department.”
The Guantanamo Bay prison has brought much negative publicity to the U.S. government. Since its inception, detainees and their attorneys have complained about conditions of confinement that they refer to as torture. Prisoners have repeatedly gone on hunger strikes, and four have died while in custody. [See: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.24].
Like al-Darbi, most of the current detainees have been held at Gitmo for more than 10 years, though many – unlike him – have never been brought to trial. Critics say the military justice system created to hear the trials has suffered numerous procedural breakdowns and ground to a standstill.
According to Dr. Homer Venter, with Physicians for Human Rights, “The facility is a symbol of U.S. torture and injustice known around the world. It represents the unlawful, immoral, and harmful regime of indefinite detention and should be shuttered immediately.... Most of the men remaining at Guantanamo have been there for more than a decade without charge or trial.”
In addition to criticizing its use of torture, Venter also spoke out against what he termed a lack of proper medical care for detainees.
The Guantanamo Bay prison was originally conceived by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a place for the “worst of the worst,” where detainees would not be on U.S. soil and thus unable to avail themselves of constitutional protections – although the U.S. Supreme Court has dealt that plan numerous setbacks.
Al-Darbi was already in detention when he was connected to and charged with the 2002 bombing of a French oil tanker, during which a Bulgarian crew member died. He pleaded guilty to war crimes in 2014 and will serve the remaining nine years of a 13-year sentence in Saudi Arabia, his native country.
His departure from Guantanamo Bay was the first time a detainee had been transferred from the facility since Trump took office. Because al-Darbi had been held in detention since 2002, his attorney, Ranzi Kassem, pointed out that he will spend a total of 25 years in custody – despite consenting to 600 interviews with U.S. officials and eight days of testimony as a cooperating witness for U.S. prosecutors in military trials.
“This is what passes for justice at Guantanamo,” said Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York who has represented al-Darbi for the past decade.
Although he acknowledged that not much will change with the new executive order, Lee Wolosky, Obama’s special envoy at the State Department for closing Gitmo, noted that “as a symbolic matter, it changes a great deal.”
“Symbolically, it reaffirms [Trump’s] interest in perpetrating a symbol that has greatly damaged the United States,” he said.
Sources: www.correctionalnews.com, www.cnbc.com, www.theguardian.com, www.sfgate.com, www.cnn.com, www.npr.org, www.humanrightsfirst.org
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