Twenty years have passed since the horrific 9/11 attacks, which killed 2,977, injured 6000 and led to a health fallout for survivors and responders. This year also marks the release of The Mauritanian, a movie based on the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was held for fourteen years without charge in Guantanamo Bay. Salahi was among the lucky few to survive the military prison, which has attracted international condemnation and notoriety for its legacy of torture.
War on Terror
In the aftermath of 9/11, the then Bush administration established a detention camp on the coast of Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. The purpose was to house suspected terrorists as one of the measures in the administration’s campaign against terrorism aka the ‘war on terror’. The administration chose to call detainees in the war against terrorism ‘unlawful enemy combatants’.
Guantanamo Bay detention camp is a formidable military prison to be held in. Escaping from the prison is not only difficult but also hazardous – you’d have to flee to Cuba or cross the Caribbean Sea.
Since 2002, about 780 detainees have been held in Guantanamo Bay. At the time of writing, 39 men were still held in the camp, of whom 12 have been charged with war crimes and 10 await trial. Furthermore, 17 detainees are held in indefinite detention, a state of limbo where they neither face charges nor have they been recommended for release. The United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Human Rights Watch, have called the indefinite detention of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay a violation of international law.
Subverting US and international law
The US government never intended to house ‘enemy combatants’ in the ‘war on terror’ to give them a fair and just trial. They chose a place where they could subvert US and international law to hold suspected terrorists allegedly involved in terrorism against the country.
A disregard for the rule of law was apparent in the use of military commissions to try enemy combatants. It wasn’t a first for America. The US has a history of sorts in using military commissions to try enemy combatants of war crimes, beginning from the occupation in Mexico in 1847 to the Civil War, Philippine Insurrection and after WWII. From then on, the federal court and military justice systems took on the job of prosecuting alleged perpetrators of terrorism-related offenses.
Lethargic and ineffectual
The military commissions have been accused of violating fair trial standards. Pre-trial hearings of Guantanamo Bay inmates are plagued by procedural delays stemming from confusions over the rules from civilian and military courts to apply. Resultantly, since 9/11, the military commissions have convicted only eight detainees. Of them, four were overturned completely and one partially after the offences they were convicted of were deemed not to be war crimes. In the same time, federal courts have convicted more than 620 people on terrorism-related charges, notes the independent advocacy and action organization Human Rights First.
Guantanamo Bay holds the dubious reputation of being the longest-standing war prison in US history. The oldest Guantanamo prisoner, 73-old Saifulla Paracha, was cleared for release this year after 16 years at the camp. When reliable evidence exists, there’s nothing to stop a true criminal justice system from trying alleged enemy belligerents. In the absence of reliable evidence, detainees cannot be locked up indefinitely. This is yet another flagrant violation of human rights and international law by the US government.
Supreme Court actions against military commissions
In 2006, the Supreme Court struck down the military commissions, determining that they were procedurally flawed and unconstitutional, and in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Congress passed the 2006 Military Commissions Act, which gave the President absolute power to determine who was an enemy of the country and to detain people indefinitely without charging them with a crime.
The administration of President George W. Bush made clear that it was not obliged to provide basic constitutional protections to prisoners as the naval base was outside US territory, or to follow the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians during wartime as the conventions did not apply to ‘unlawful enemy combatants’.
Torture of detainees
Guantanamo Bay has been condemned by several international human rights organizations for violating human rights, including illegal and indefinite detention, various forms of torture during interrogation, inhumane conditions, unfair trails, and more. The violations have gone unpunished.
Detainees face repeated and elaborate torture. Salahi endured isolation, sleep deprivation, beatings, sexual humiliation, temperature and sound extremes and a mock execution in a boat. Amnesty International recently released a report on the ongoing human rights violations at Guantanamo. The report notes that victims of torture do not receive adequate medical treatment and that transfers out of the prison have stalled.
The US has been tight-lipped about deaths by suicide at Guantanamo. Suicides accounted for the first inmate deaths at the camp, with a total of 41 suicide attempts among 29 prisoners until June 10, 2006. Since then, the Department of Defense has reported three suicide deaths.
Other countries have cooperated with the United States against the war on terrorism. Following public outcry, they have expressed regret for their complicity and compensated former prisoners. The UK, Poland and Canada have paid millions in reparations to ex-inmates tortured at Guantanamo.
Former inmates have also sued the US and allies that served as black sites for the torture of alleged terrorists prior to their transfer to Guantanamo Bay. Recently, a Palestinian man who was held at the military camp for 19 years without trial, took the US, UK and five other countries before a UN human rights panel on grounds of rendition and torture.
Closure in sight?
This year, UN rights experts called on the US to address the ongoing ill-treatment of Guantanamo Bay inmates, citing the advancing age and vulnerability of the remaining detainees. The fate of inmates has rested in changes in presidency – Obama sought to close the prison but faced opposition from the Congress, although he succeeded in reducing the number of inmates. Donald Trump kept Guantanamo Bay open indefinitely although he did express unhappiness at the costs of running the controversial prison. Current US President Joe Biden has promised to shutter the camp, and either release or transfer the remaining inmates, by the end of his term. Whatever the outcome, Guantanamo Bay will forever remain a human rights shame in the annals of history.