Human rights advocates on Friday welcomed reporting, confirmed by the White House, that President Joe Biden intends to close the Guantánamo Bay offshore military prison, which has long drawn global condemnation for torture and detention conditions.
"We are pleased to hear that the Biden administration wants to review the U.S. policy of almost 20 years of indefinite detention without charge of Muslim men at an offshore prison."
—Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA
"We are pleased to hear that the Biden administration wants to review the U.S. policy of almost 20 years of indefinite detention without charge of Muslim men at an offshore prison," said Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security With Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA, in a statement.
Noting that the U.S. government has detained hundreds of men at the prison over the past two decades and 40 prisoners remain there now, she said, "It is long past time to close it down."
Eviatar recognized that former President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president, never delivered on his campaign promised to shut down the prison, despite taking action shortly after he was sworn in. By contrast, former President Donald Trump vowed as a candidate to keep it open—and then did.
"President Biden must commit to finishing what former President Obama failed to do: putting an end to this human rights atrocity," Evitar said, "by immediately transferring detainees not charged with crimes to countries where their human rights will be respected, providing fair trials to anyone charged, without resort[ing] to the death penalty, and finally shuttering this discriminatory and unlawful detention facility once and for all."
Her comments came in response to reporting from Reuters on Friday that Biden's aides have launched a formal review of the prison with the goal of closing it.
BREAKING: "The Biden administration has launched a formal review of the future of the U.S. military prison at #Guantanamo Bay with the goal of closing the controversial facility in Cuba, a White House official said"
— Reprieve (@Reprieve) February 12, 2021
National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne told Reuters that "we are undertaking an NSC process to assess the current state of play that the Biden administration has inherited from the previous administration, in line with our broader goal of closing Guantánamo."
"The NSC will work closely with the Departments of Defense, State, and Justice to make progress toward closing the GTMO facility, and also in close consultation with Congress," added Horne.
Asked by reporters on Friday whether Biden will shutter the prison, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, "That certainly is our goal and our intention."
Psaki noted that several key policy positions need to be filled as the administration takes on the review, which she said will be a "robust, inter-agency process."
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While Scott Roehm, Washington director of the advocacy group the Center for Victims of Torture, called the review "an encouraging and much welcome development," adding that "the process needs to move quickly," Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch, expressed concern about timing.
Perhaps referencing Obama's early—though ultimately unsuccessful—action on the prison, Prasow told Reuters that "while I'm glad to hear that the new administration will be reviewing policy with an eye towards closing Guantánamo, it's concerning that it is coming so late in the game."
Reuters explained that Biden, like Obama, could face barriers to shuttering the prison that was opened under former President George W. Bush:
The federal government is still barred by law from transferring any inmates to prisons on the U.S. mainland. Even with his own Democratic party now controlling Congress, their majorities are so slim that Biden would face a tough challenge securing legislative changes because some Democrats might also oppose them.
A revived Guantánamo strategy is expected to focus initially on further decreasing the number of prisoners by repatriating them or finding other countries to accept them, according to the people familiar with the matter.
This could also mean re-establishing a State Department post of Guantánamo closure envoy, created by Obama but eliminated by Trump, to resume negotiations with other governments on detainee transfers, the sources said.
In addition, the Pentagon could restart a parole-style review process of prisoners' cases to determine whether they still posed a threat, the sources said.
One barrier that Obama did not face was the coronavirus pandemic, which could further stall Biden's efforts by making it harder to relocate prisoners.
On January 11, just days before the president took office, human rights advocates marked the 19th anniversary of Gitmo's opening with renewed demands. Amnesty released a report that details the prison's history as well as encourages Biden to end military commissions there and immediately close the facility.
After Biden took office, 111 advocacy groups—building on demands from former detainees—sent him a letter arguing that "it is long past time for both a sea change in the United States' approach to national and human security, and a meaningful reckoning with the full scope of damage that the post-9/11 approach has caused."
"Closing Guantánamo and ending indefinite detention of those held there is a necessary step towards those ends," the organizations' letter to Biden adds. "We urge you to act without delay, and in a just manner that considers the harm done to the men who have been imprisoned without charge or fair trials for nearly 20 years."