Guantanamo 20 years on: A legacy of ‘injustice’ and ‘abuse’

Advocates reflect on the ‘disturbing legacy’ of the detention facility and urge US president Joe Biden to take action and close it down.

US President Obama gives details on closing Guantanamo Bay facility
'It is a global symbol of American injustice, torture and disregard for the rule of law,' the ACLU's Hina Shamsi says of Guantanamo Bay prison [File: Mike Brown/EPA]

Washington, DC, the United States – On the 20th anniversary of Guantanamo Bay, advocates say the US military detention facility represents two decades of injustice – and must be shut down.

Established at an American military base in Cuba in 2002 by the administration of President George W Bush, the prison was meant to deprive detainees from the post-9/11 “war on terror” of the constitutional rights they would enjoy on US soil.

Its location – in an American-owned enclave of the Caribbean island – muddied the waters on the applicability of international law and rules of war on the treatment of prisoners. And over the years, the prison earned a reputation as a place of abuse and injustice outside the rule of law.

US President Joe Biden has promised to close the facility, but reports on the construction of a new, secret courtroom at Guantanamo have exacerbated concerns that the administration may not be serious about shutting it down. There has been only one transfer out of the prison over the past year.

The facility that once housed nearly 800 detainees now holds 39 prisoners, with 13 already cleared for transfer. Most have been held without formal charges.

Here, Al Jazeera speaks with human and civil rights advocates on the legacy of Guantanamo:

Activists in orange prison jumpsuits protest with signs next to an American flagActivists demonstrate against the Guantanamo Bay detention camp near the White House, in Washington, DC on January 11, 2020 [File: Mike Theiler/Reuters]

Mansoor Adayfi, former inmate: ’20 years of injustice, torture, abuse’

Mansoor Adayfi is speaking from personal experience when he says Guantanamo represents “20 years of injustice, torture, abuse, lawlessness and oppression”.

Adayfi spent more than 14 years at the prison, where he says he endured torture, humiliation and abuse. A Yemeni native, Adayfi was conducting research in Afghanistan when – at the age of 18 – he was kidnapped by Afghan fighters and handed to the CIA on allegations that he was a much older recruiter for al-Qaeda.

Adayfi maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal, which he describes as dehumanising, and was released in 2016 to Serbia, where he continues to advocate for closing down Guantanamo and ensuring justice for the detainees.

“Guantanamo is one of the biggest human rights violations of the 21st century,” Adayfi, who last year released a memoir titled Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantanamo, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “And also it is [abusive] to the American justice system, to the American people. Guantanamo hasn’t achieved any justice for anyone – not for the 9/11 victims, not for Americans, not for the detainees.”

For his own experience with torture and wrongful detention, Adayfi said the path to justice would begin with closing Guantanamo and ending the secrecy around abuses and legal proceedings that took place there.

“Justice means reparation, means acknowledgement, means apologising,” he said.


Hina Shamsi, ACLU: Guantanamo a ‘symbol of American injustice’

Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a prominent critic of the civil rights violations that accompanied the “war on terror“, called the Guantanamo Bay prison a “legal, moral and ethical failure”.

“It is a global symbol of American injustice, torture and disregard for the rule of law,” Shamsi told Al Jazeera via email, adding that Biden must be held accountable to his campaign promise to close down Guantanamo.

“Prisoners who are indefinitely detained without charge must be transferred, starting with those who have been cleared for transfer for years. The Biden administration needs to resolve the broken and unconstitutional military commissions by pursuing plea agreements that would account for defendants’ torture by our government while providing a measure of transparency and justice, as 9/11 family members have urged,” she said.

“If President Biden is serious about upholding human rights, racial equity, and justice, he needs to take action by finally closing Guantanamo.”


Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA: Guantanamo’s legacy is ‘Islamophobia and impunity for torture’

Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security with Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA, said the fact that Guantanamo has been open for 20 years is “itself a very disturbing legacy”.

“Until the United States is willing to shut the prison down, transfer detainees to places where their human rights will be respected, and acknowledge and provide reparations for the abuses that happened at Guantanamo, the legacy of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay will continue to be one of flagrant human rights abuses, racism and Islamophobia and impunity for torture,” Eviatar told Al Jazeera in an email.

Eviatar said the way forward to shut down the prison is “clear” and “not particularly difficult” – freeing detainees cleared for release, trying those charged with “internationally cognizable crimes” in regularly-constituted US federal courts, and transferring inmates who have not been charged to other countries where they would not face rights abuses.

“President Biden has no excuse for not taking that path,” she said.


Yumna Rizvi, Center for Victims of Torture: ‘Hypocrisy and arrogance’

Yumna Rizvi, policy analyst at the Center for Victims of Torture, an advocacy group for torture survivors, including Guantanamo detainees, said the prison’s legacy is “dark and haunting”.

“Many of the Muslim men detained behind its bars have been subjected to unspeakable human rights violations by the United States and have suffered irreparable damage,” Rizvi told Al Jazeera in an email.

“Guantanamo highlights the hypocrisy and arrogance of the U.S, which has deliberately turned its back on the rule of law, creating a faux legal system where impunity, injustice, and disregard for human rights reign.”


Robert McCaw, CAIR: A prison designed to deny Muslim suspects their rights

Robert McCaw, government affairs director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights group, said the prison highlights the anti-Muslim bias of US government policies in the post-9/11 era.

“The highest security prison that the United States government maintains is in Guantanamo. And it’s designed to only house Muslim men that are being held without charge on the suspicion of supporting terrorism,” McCaw told Al Jazeera.

“The psychological impact of having such a prison designed to detain Muslim men indefinitely and deny them their rights shows the status of Muslims in the US legal system, and how far the government is willing to go to treat Muslims in US custody,” McCaw said. “And so, as long as this prison remains, it’s not only a stain on our nation’s human rights record but a testimony to the different treatment that Muslim suspects have in the US judicial system.”

Source: Al Jazeera