Guantanamo bay and the legacy of global “War on Terror”

The failure of the successive governments in the US to shut Gitmo in which the majority of the detainees, past and present, were never charged with any crime formally, even after spending years in prison and suffering inhuman acts of torture, exposes their complete disregard to human rights.

October 03, 2021 by Abdul Rahman
Detainees upon arrival at Camp X-Ray, January 2002. Photo: Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy

President Joe Biden claimed to have ended the forever War in Afghanistan on August 30, 2021. The War in Afghanistan is often seen as the starting point in the global War on Terror started by George Bush in 2001 following the September 11 attacks. This so-called War on Terror has been marred with severe inefficiency and innumerable loss of innocent lives worldwide. Worst, it has empowered the American state to completely disregard the rights in the name of “national security” exhibited in institutions such as the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

Since its formation in January 2002, a few months after the September 11 attacks in 2001, a total of 779 detainees have been kept at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Most of them were citizens of different Arab and Muslim majority countries in Asia and Africa but some of them were also US citizens. Most of them were illegally arrested on mere suspicion of their involvement in vaguely defined “terrorist activities” and illegally deported after being tortured first at various local facilities, called the “black sites” similar to Guantanamo. When at Guantanamo Bay, these detainees were tortured again, some of them even sexually abused in an attempt to force them to admit “crimes” or give information with no legal aid available and beyond any possibility of public scrutiny.

Even before the release of Wikileaks’ Gitmo — short for Guantanamo — files, which provide the details of what happened in the detention, acts of torture suffered by the detainees, and the cases of most of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, the world knew the truth about these prisons through various media reports and in some instances, photos, released of actual crimes of torture committed by the US jail officials. All human rights groups, including the UN, failed to appeal to the US to follow the basic international norms it claims to uphold otherwise.

A complex system built to escape scrutiny 

The Guantanamo Bay detention center or Gitmo is an US-controlled facility in Cuba. Although the Cuban government has not permitted its presence on its territory, the US, using its military power, has occupied this part of the Cuban territory since the early 1900s, in violation of Cuban sovereignty. Since it is not on US territory, US laws and constitution do not apply here, giving the successive administrations impunity from any persecution in US court which has been specifically used to deny basic human rights to hundreds of people from across the world.

When some of the hundreds of detainees of the Gitmo tried to use rights provided to them by the American Constitution and the international law and file petitions to US courts seeking proper trial, the courts rejected most of them virtually saying Guantanamo Bay is a lawless territory. The US courts’ reluctance to intervene indicates the typical characteristic of the state and legal system during the so-called global War of Terror. Meanwhile, the popularly elected US congress has guarded and strengthened the US government’s impunity. By allowing Gitmo’s existence US elected officials and citizens have created an all-powerful state that can and has violated all established norms of individual freedom and dignity assured under international human rights laws and long-cherished by themselves.

Guantanamo Bay is not an exception though. The George Bush administration created several detention centers and prisons similar to it across the world using the heightened and hysteric popular emotions following the September 11 attacks. For example, following its invasion in 2001 the US created Parwan or Bargam in Afghanistan and after a similar invasion in 2003, Abu Ghraib was created in Iraq. In all of them, hundreds were detained — illegally. Most were tortured to force them to confess their involvement in crimes they likely did not commit or give information which they may not have had. Many other such ‘facilities’ were used as holding centers for the victims of rendition before they were transferred to one of the above mentioned detention centers, including Guantanamo Bay.

The uncertain future 

The US does not outrightly release the detainees against whom it has nothing to prove. Instead, it follows a policy of transfer of the detainees to a third country such as the UK, Germany, Slovakia, and Saudi Arabia. So far, at least 731 detainees have been transferred out of prison, most of them during the George Bush administration. Nine detainees have died during detention, some committing suicide.

Despite the global criticism following the revelations of the condition at Gitmo and expressed willingness to close it successive US administrations have failed to do so. Barack Obama could not do it despite being in power for two terms (2009-2017). His successor, Donald Trump even tried to revive the prison during his four years in power. It even halted most of the release orders of detainees who have spent close to a decade or even more at the center and against whom the US military has failed to find anything despite administering regular torture.

Today, there are 39 men still detained in Gitmo. Only five of them, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is alleged to be the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, are expected to face a military trial which has already been delayed for years. Most others are held endlessly without charge or trial and will probably eventually be transferred to a third country as others.

National security vs. natural justice  

The fact that the entire process of creating and running those detention centers was illegal and a question on the so-called American values did not stop the highest officials in the US, including all the presidents since George Bush, from ordering their creation and even defending the torture after it became public. It seems even Joe Biden, vice president during both the terms of Obama and now the president who could withdraw from Afghanistan and shut Parwan citing “endlessness” of the war in the country will find it a much more difficult task to shut Gitmo as promised by 2024.

US Congress is still not willing to change its position since 2011 when it moved to impose a limit on the transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo Bay, severely curtailing any chances of its immediate shutting down. The logic was simple: national security. The fact that the state has failed to find anything to incriminate the overwhelming majority of detainees even after years in prison and after subjecting them to all kinds of torture did not help. The lynch crowd mentality, based on the idea of collective punishment and a rather racist sense of justice, prevailed against the ideas of natural justice.

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