Today Guantanamo Bay has just 89 prisoners. Here’s how the U.S. military prison came to be, and why it’s hard to close today.
Here’s a primer on the Guantanamo prisoners and the current U.S. plan for them.
First, the basics:
The U.S. operates the prison on Cuban soil, which it has authority over as a result of a 1903 Cuban-American treaty.
It was constructed in early 2002. Beginning that year, the U.S. detained suspected members of al-Qaeda.
There are currently 89 men imprisoned at Guantanamo . The majority are from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Pakistan.
A total of 779 people have been held in the camp. Nine of those died in custody, while 621 have been transferred away, most of them during the Bush administration. Seven have been convicted by military commissions.
Why the prison is controversial:
Prisoners are held indefinitely, without officially being charged with crimes. The U.S. does not (pdf) consider them prisoners of war and argue that the Geneva Convention protecting human rights does not apply to them.[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”RyR0qUPEdmnFG71uvf80aQjKWK0vCVHE”]
Many Guantanamo prisoners have also reportedly been subject to torture and abuse, including beatings, force feeding, sexual assault and sensory deprivation. A 2006 Center for Constitutional Rights report (pdf) details how prisoners are treated.
Under what authority does the U.S. hold these prisoners?
The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed in 2001 (pdf) after 9/11, authorized the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks…”
However, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 also grants the authority to indefinitely detain enemy combatants, and it would likely stay intact even if the AUMF is repealed.
Are all Guantanamo prisoners terrorists?
Actually, 92% of all detainees ever held are not al-Qaeda fighters, the CCR reports (pdf).
A 2013 report, however, by the Director of National Intelligence stated that out of all the released prisoners, 16.6% “re-engaged” in terrorist or insurgent activities.
Out of the remaining prisoners, 35 have been cleared for transfer but have yet to be released.
How are Guantanamo legal cases processed?
The camp was placed in Guantanamo to avoid the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, but a 2004 Supreme Court decision stated that the territory also fell under U.S. law.
Nevertheless, Guantanamo prisoners are not judged by U.S. courts, but by special military commissions.
Federal courts in the U.S. have treated hundreds of terrorism cases, but a law passed by Congress currently blocks transfers of Guantanamo Bay prisoners for trial, out of concern for the safety of Americans.
Instead, prisoners are transferred to one out of 52 other countries, with the majority being transferred to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Some are indicted, but most are set free by their new host country.
What’s likely to happen?
President Obama’s original plan to close the camp was stymied by Congress, which blocked the necessary funds and prevented the transfer of detainees to U.S. soil.
In 2016, the President submitted a new closure plan to congress The plan would transfer 35 detainees to other countries and house the rest in a US facility yet to be identified.