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Michael Lehnert: 'Close Guantanamo'

The retired general who built the US prison in Guantanamo says all efforts should be directed at closing the facility.

Last updated: 07 Mar 2014 15:32
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Guantanamo, Cuba - a prison camps for terrorists? Not at the beginning. In the 1990s, it was set up as temporary camps for Cuban refugees who desperately wanted to flee the communist regime and live in the United States.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton decided that all those refugees would be held in Guantanamo, getting life skills and training before they would be allowed in to the US.

There were 13 camps run by a career American marine, Major General Michael Lehnert.

Guantanamo has become a poster child and a recruiting post for al-Qaeda. It has become an example - a bad example - to the rest of the world that America does not support and follow the rule of law.

Michael Lehnert, retired US major general

Then, when the US was attacked on September 11, 2001, and responded with military action in Afghanistan, the country needed a place for its prisoners of war. After considerable debate, the Bush administration found such a place in Guantanamo; and in Lehnert, they had found the man to run it.

"The theory, I think, in Washington was, well, if he knows how to do migrants he probably knows how to do enemy combatants who are detainees. In point of fact, there is a vast difference," Lehnert tells Al Jazeera about his role at the facility.

The general charged ahead and in just days oversaw the construction of a centre for holding what, at the time, were believed to be terrorist suspects.

"There was a belief on the part of many people in the administration that these folks [who were sent to Guantanamo] were a gold mine of information, so there was a desire to take them somewhere where they could be interrogated," he says.

But since then, his creation has become an international eyesore - not just for critics abroad but also for Lehnert himself, who raises concerns about the rule of law at Guantanamo.

"The argument being made in Washington was that since these were enemy combatants, but not necessarily a representative of any sovereign nation, that they didn't fall under the strict definition of a prisoner of war. And that because we were in Cuba, in an extra-legal area, that the rules, the international agreements and the constitution, did not necessarily apply," he says.

"I didn't share that view ... Because every military officer takes an oath to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. It's an oath that we take ... our first allegiance is to the constitution."

Now, the man who built the US prison in Guantanamo says it is time for it to close.

"Guantanamo has become a poster child and a recruiting post for al-Qaeda. It has become an example - a bad example - to the rest of the world that America does not support and follow the rule of law," he says.

"With the opportunity to see the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, there is a natural inflection point where we ought to be putting all our efforts into closing Guantanamo."

This week, retired Major General Michael Lehnert joins Rosiland Jordan to talk to Al Jazeera about the future of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Talk to Al Jazeera can be seen each weekat the following times GMT: Saturday: 0430 and 1930; Sunday: 1930; Monday: 1430 .  

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