By Carlos Harrison for The Huffington Post
It’s been a troubled – some might say, tragic – 10 years for the detention camps at the Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba. And as they slouch into their 11th year on January 11, there’s no end in sight.
“We say to ourselves, in sort of gallows humor: Guantánamo will close when the last detainee there dies of natural causes,” Jeremy Varon, an organizer with Witness Against Torture, told the Huffington Post on Wednesday.
Franz Kafka himself would have been hard-pressed to concoct a more bewildering and brutal contradictory reality. Allegations over the years have included sexual humiliation, waterboarding, and the use of dogs to scare detainees. Released detainees reported being locked in in sensory deprivation cells, beaten repeatedly, and forced to race while wearing leg shackles. If they fell, they were punished.
If it sounds like Abu Ghraib, it should. The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee found that intelligence teams transported the “aggressive” interrogation techniques perfected at Guantánamo to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The link between Cuba and the war zones, the New York Times reported, was Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, then the head of detention operations at Guantánamo. At his insistence, the Times wrote, the Defense Department sent training teams on 90-day tours in Iraq, showing the soldiers there the techniques utilized on the island. The timing, Amnesty International points out, happened to coincide with when the worst abuses occurred at Abu Ghraib.
Thanks to reports like those, the detention camps have become an international symbol of what democracy and justice are not. They’ve been plagued by suicide attempts by desperate detainees and condemned by the United Nations, human rights groups, even former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who called for the immediate closing of the camps in 2006.
“The value of holding prisoners there was unclear, but the price we were paying around the world for doing so was obvious,” Powell said.
The camps were created in 2002 as a deliberately “extraterritorial” place to extract information from captives in the “War on Terror.” By putting them at Guantanamo, the United States, meant to be beyond the jurisdiction of both the Geneva Conventions and U.S. courts.
That didn’t put them outside the range of public opinion. The camps sparked outrage on day one. Pictures flew around the world of shackled and handcuffed detainees on their knees on the ground with black hoods over their heads and mittens on their hands.
The indignation grew as the first 20 captives went into wire cages at Camp X-Ray, described by critics as “kennels.” Soon, though, the detainees were transferred to permanent cells, and Camp X-Ray was closed.
But the human rights complaints continued, even from some of America’s closest allies.
In 2006, speaking on BBC radio, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said:
“I am absolutely clear that the U.S. has no intention of maintaining a Gulag in Guantanamo Bay. They want to see the situation resolved and they would like it other than it is. However, that is the situation that they have.”
In all 779 detainees have been held in the camps. Eight have died there, including six suicides. One man died of colon cancer, another after an apparent heart attack.
And, in the 10 years since it opened, only six detainees have been convicted of war crimes.
The last 171 still there are caught at the conflicting conjunction where bureaucracy, politics, and military regulations collide – offering little chance, at least for the foreseeable future, of gaining their release.
Forty-six are classified as “indefinite detainees,” held without charges, but considered too dangerous to be released; 89 are eligible for release or transfer but in perpetual custody because there is no place to send them. Five more have been convicted of war crimes; and six face trial – perhaps this year – for the 9/11 attacks and the October 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing.
That makes Guantanamo, as Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald described it in a piece for Foreign Affairs, “arguably the most expensive prison camp on earth, with a staff of 1,850 U.S. troops and civilians managing a compound that contains 171 captives, at a cost of $800,000 a year per detainee.”
But even the budget conscious Congress resists closing the base. In fact, it has used its spending oversight powers to thwart the president’s efforts to do just that. It has used that authority to prevent the trial of detainees on U.S. soil and to block the purchase of a dedicated prison facility in Illinois to house transferred detainees.
And no one wants to risk having a released captive later become involved in an act of terrorism or insurgency, which happened with at least one-fourth of the 500 detainees set free under President George W. Bush.
So, the captives remain in Guantanamo. Until when no one knows.
As Marc Thiessen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told CNN:
“We have the right to continue to hold them as long as al Qaeda is at war with us.”
Having the right, though, doesn’t make it right, said Geneve Mantri, government relations director for national security, Amnesty International.
Speaking to The Huffington Post on Wednesday, he said the 89 cleared for release by both the Bush administration and a review ordered by President Obama, “represent little or no threat.”
“This has always been sold as a question of the worst of the worst and the reality is that a large number of the people that have been picked up, I hate to say it are in the insignificant and rather pathetically sad story category,” he said.
“There is a minority of people (in the camps) that no one doubts are truly dangerous. That minority of people should be placed in front of a US court. Because we have the most efficient system, the fastest and cheapest and best system for looking at all the evidence. You produce it all in a court of law. Have a real defense — an internationally recognized defense. And then put them away forever.”