From torture to deeply contentious political issue: Guantanamo Bay completes 20 years

Two decades after the first detainees arrived at Guantanamo Bay, a group of UN experts have urged Washington to finally close the site of "unrelenting human rights violations".

Let's take a look

Set up after 9/11

The United States set up the prison after US-led forces invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of the al Qaeda network behind the hijacked plane attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.

(Photograph:AFP)

Drew worldwide condemnation

The Guantanamo prison drew worldwide condemnation during Republican President George W. Bush's administration, which kept hundreds of foreign terrorism suspects locked up there in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks and the subsequent US war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

(Photograph:AFP)

'Camp X-Ray'

The first 20 prisoners and other early arrivals were held at "Camp X-Ray," in chain-link wire cages that have long since been replaced by modern prison buildings. Its population grew to a peak of about 800 inmates before it started to shrink.

(Photograph:AFP)

'Systematic use of torture'

Once holding nearly 800 people seized around the world and transported to the Cuba facility, today the Guantanamo jail holds 39 men, some of them from the very first months after it opened.

Of them, 13 have been cleared for transfer, though finding a place to send them to, or making arrangements for their repatriation to their home countries, has proven a very slow process.

Fourteen others are seeking to be released; 10 are in the process of standing trial or are waiting to stand trial; and two others have been convicted.

A number of those remaining were subjected to torture by CIA interrogators in the first years of the post-9/11 detention programme.

The US government has acknowledged that interrogators used now-banned techniques that included sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures and loud music. Prisoners were also chained in painful "stress positions." 

(Photograph:AFP)

'Legal black hole'

The UN experts have slammed the US judicial system for failing to protect human rights and uphold the rule of law, and thereby "enabling a legal black hole to thrive in Guantanamo."

"Guantanamo Bay is a site of unparallelled notoriety, defined by the systematic use of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against hundreds of men brought to the site and deprived of their most fundamental rights," they said.

The experts pointed out that between 2002 and 2021, nine detainees died in custody, seven of them reportedly from suicide. None had been charged with a crime, they said.

They insisted that those who had authorised and engaged in torture at Guantanamo should be brought to justice.

"When a state fails to hold accountable those who have authorised and practised torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, it sends a signal of complacency and acquiescence to the world," they said.

The experts voiced alarm that military commissions were still undergoing pre-trial proceedings on motions to suppress evidence of torture.

"The continued unfairness of the proceedings," they said, "is a stain on the stated commitment of the United States to the rule of law and constitutional protection."

(Photograph:AFP)

Possibility of shut down

Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said Monday that President Joe Biden wants to close the Guantanamo prison, though it remains a deeply contentious political issue.

"I will tell you the administration remains dedicated to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay," Kirby told reporters.

"We are in a review right now about the way forward," he said, a process that involves the White House, the US military, the Justice Department, the State Department and other agencies.

(Photograph:Reuters)

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