The Elusive Guantanamo EndgameRoundup
tags: war on terror, Guantanamo Bay, Caribbean history
Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author of the newly published Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump (Princeton University Press). Julia Tedesco helped with research for this piece.
It’s now more than 20 years later and that American offshore symbol of mistreatment and injustice, the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is still open. In fact, as 2021 ended, New York Times reporter Carol Rosenberg, who has covered that notorious prison complex since its first day, reported on the Pentagon’s plans to build a brand-new prefab courthouse at that naval base. It’s intended to serve as a second, even more secret facility for holding the four remaining trials of war-on-terror detainees and is scheduled to be ready “sometime in 2023.”
Close Guantánamo? Not soon, it seems. The cost of that new construction is a mere $4 million, a relatively minor sum compared to the $6 billion dollars and counting that detention and trial operations had claimed by 2019, according to the estimate of one whistleblower.
Notably, the news about the building of that secret courtroom coincided with the 20-year anniversary of the detention facility and the administration of the second president who’s intending to shut the place down. Its plans are meant to suggest that the proposed structure will actually contribute to that never-ending process of closing the world’s most notorious prison camp. Guantánamo currently has 39 detainees in custody, 12 of whom are held under a military commissions system; 18 of whom, long kept without charges of any sort, have now been officially cleared for release to chosen countries which agree to have them (which doesn’t mean that they’ll actually be released); and nine of whom, also never charged, are merely hoping for such clearance.
With two courtrooms instead of one, trials, at least more than a year away, could theoretically take place at the same time rather than sequentially. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine that the number of courtrooms will have any effect on a speedier outcome. As Scott Roehm, Washington director for the Center for Victims of Torture, recently told the Daily Beast, “There is a consensus that the commissions have failed — but they haven’t failed because of a lack of courtrooms.”
Consider it a record of sorts that, in 20 years, only two trials have ever been completed there, both in 2008. Both led to convictions, one of which was later overturned, one of which is still on appeal. This paltry record is another sign of the forever reality of Guantánamo, where neither small nips and tucks nor major alterations have proved anything more than cosmetic dressing for a situation that has proven intractable over three presidencies and the beginning of a fourth.
Of late, there has been a growing consensus that closing the prison is a must, especially given the final debacle of the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. As Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wrote at Lawfare on the 20-year anniversary of that offshore symbol of all-American injustice, “Ending the failed experiment of detention at Guantánamo Bay won’t be easy. But now that the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan is over, it’s time to shut the doors on Guantánamo once and for all.” On the floor of the Senate that same day, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) called for closure as well, deriding the prison camp as “a symbol of our failure to hold terrorists accountable and our failure to honor the sacrifices of our service members. These failures should not be passed on to another generation — they should end with the Biden Administration.”
But calling for closure is one thing, closing that prison is quite another.
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