The detention center at Guantánamo opened January 11, 2002. It is now in its 20th year of existence. Biden is the fourth U.S. president to administer the prison. A particularly atrocious aspect of 9/11’s legacy, Guantánamo has largely faded from the public discourse. But forty men are still detained there, and activists who have been demanding its closure for years continue their struggle.
British investigative journalist Andy Worthington authored The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison in 2007. He is co-founder of the organization “Close Guantánamo” and co-director of the 2009 documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.”
Worthington gave a presentation, "America's Torture Colony: 19 Years of Guantánamo... It Must Be Closed NOW!" in a Revolution Books virtual event on Jan 17, 2021. Whereas for the past 10 years, Worthington has traveled to the U.S. annually to mark the anniversary of Guantánamo’s opening on January 11, he participated in the Harlem bookstore’s virtual event from London this year due to COVID-19. He provided a concise history of the prison and compelling arguments for why it must close.
Worthington explained that the Bush administration detained terror suspects under the status unlawful enemy combatant--a “made up” category--and denied them their fundamental rights. Lawyers who fought from the beginning eventually secured habeus corpus rights through two Supreme Court cases. During a “golden period” from 2008-10, judges were able to impartially assess the purported evidence against the detainees. In approximately three dozen instances, they concluded that the government had no case. Bush released over 500 of the detainees; Obama released nearly 200.
Trump tweeted even before he was inaugurated that there must be no more releases from Guantánamo. He kept his word with one exception—a Saudi man whose plea deal stipulated that he would serve the rest of his sentence in Saudi Arabia. Worthington said Trump’s presidency highlighted that “the men held at Guantánamo are the personal prisoners of the president, are executive prisoners, are in many ways political prisoners. This has nothing to do with the law. The law has tried and has largely failed to deal with the fact that this is a broken political project that should never have happened.”
Five percent of the total number of people held at Guantánamo over the 19 years are presently detained there. Six of these 40 men have been approved for release and recommended for transfer with security conditions in the receiving country. Through a 2011 executive order, Obama established the Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process. The prisoners could make a case that they were contrite about what they were alleged to have done and would live peaceful lives upon release. A couple of years into Trump’s presidency, the prisoners for the most part boycotted the process because they concluded that what had worked under Obama had become a sham.
Nine of the remaining inmates have been charged with or convicted of war crimes; twenty-five seem destined to face life in prison without being charged with a crime. These 25 are persistently not approved for release—for a variety of reasons. Worthington said, “Some of them have allegations against them of having been in some way involved in terrorist organizations—and yet the U.S. claims that it can’t produce evidence to put these men on trial. Other men are, I believe, cases of mistaken identity. Other men—their role has been exaggerated. And in other cases, I would say it’s quite clear that the only reason that these men are still detained is that they are regarded as having had a ‘bad attitude’ since they got to Guantánamo. So this is nothing to do with what they were doing before they got to Guantánamo. This is about how they have responded to being held indefinitely without charge or trial and brutalized in this monstrous prison that the U.S. set up 19 years ago.”
Worthington recommended, “Biden needs to appoint somebody within his administration to take charge of Guantánamo. There was nobody under Donald Trump…[for example] when a couple of Libyan guys who’d been sent to Senegal were sent back to Libya where they disappeared essentially—where they were imprisoned in horrible conditions by Libyan militias, there was nobody in the Trump administration that anybody could talk to about addressing this, because Trump had shut the door on the Office of the Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, which existed under President Obama.” Since taking office, Biden has not spoken publicly about the future of Guantánamo. But his Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote in a response to a Senate Armed Services Committee policy question before his confirmation last month, “I believe it is time for the detention facility at Guantanamo to close its doors. If confirmed, I would direct my staff to work with other administration officials to develop a path forward for the remaining 40 detainees at the facility.”
Attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who represents several Guantánamo prisoners, also spoke at the Revolution Books virtual event. She illuminated the conditions at the facility and some of the forms of torture her clients have endured. She also explained the history of the detainees’ use of hunger strikes and discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the facility. The full event, moderated by Raymond Lotta of Revolution Books can be viewed on YouTube:
For more information about Worthington’s organization, visit: