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U.S. troops guard prisoners subjected to sensory deprivation and shackled in stress positions at Camp X-Ray at the Guantánamo Bay military prison on January 11, 2002. (Photo: Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

20 Years and 4 Presidents Later and Gitmo Still Not Closed

"President Biden, keep your campaign promise to put the brutal legacy—torture, detention without charges or trial—of Guantánamo Bay detention center behind us."

Brett Wilkins

Human rights defenders marked the 20th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba under the administration of former President George W. Bush by noting that three American presidents have come and gone without anyone being held accountable for the horrific crimes that have occurred there, while calling on the fourth—Joe Biden—to finally close what one advocate called an "indelible stain" on the nation.

"President Biden needs to fulfill his pledge to finally end this shameful chapter of American history." 

"Four American presidents have overseen the facility and three have promised to close it," the ACLU tweeted Tuesday. "Every day Guantánamo remains open is an affront to human rights, justice, and the rule of law."

"Since 2002, 779 Muslim men and boys have been held at Guantánamo, nearly all without charge or trial," the ACLU continued.

According to retired U.S. Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Bush-era Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush, along with his vice president and defense secretary, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, knew that most of the prisoners were innocent, but kept them locked up for political reasons.

"Today, 39 men remain indefinitely detained," noted the ACLU. "Twenty-seven have never been charged with a crime, and 14 of those prisoners have been cleared for transfer or release, some for years."

In July 2021, the administration of Biden—who has signaled his intention to close Guantánamo—released 56-year-old Abdul Latif Nasser after 19 years of detention and repatriated him to his native Morocco. No other Gitmo prisoners have been transferred during Biden's tenure.

Biden's former boss, President Barack Obama, signed executive orders after entering the White House in 2009 that were meant to end torture and close Gitmo. Obama—who was blocked by Congress from implementing the prison's closure—broke a campaign promise and the law by actively shielding Bush-era officials from accountability while torture continued at Gitmo.

Obama's successor, former President Donald Trump, vowed to "load up" Gitmo with "bad dudes" and "bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding" while signing an executive order to keep the facility open. However, the prison's population did not increase under his tenure and in 2019 he said his administration would search for alternatives to Guantánamo.

Connecting the four presidents of the Guantánamo era is a military commission regimen under which detainees accused of the most serious crimes—including planning and supporting the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States—are slated to be tried. Numerous military officers have resigned from what former lead prosecutor Col. Morris Davis called the "rigged" commission.

As the U.S. military slowly moves ahead with the commission proceedings, human rights advocates urge Biden to succeed where his predecessors failed and finally close Guantánamo once and for all.

"President Biden, keep your campaign promise to put the brutal legacy—torture, detention without charges or trial—of Guantánamo Bay detention center behind us," Marcy Winograd of the women-led peace group CodePink tweeted, while calling on the president to appoint a special State Department envoy "to close this hellhole."

"President Biden needs to fulfill his pledge to finally end this shameful chapter of American history," the ACLU asserted. "He can do this by ending indefinite military detention and the unconstitutional military commissions system."

Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, wrote Tuesday that "it is not only about closing Guantánamo. It is also about delivering accountability for the violations committed within its settings."

"Guantánamo is an indelible stain on the United States' history, a chapter it must now close and never repeat," she stressed.

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