Does Obama's Guantánamo Plan Really Mean Anything for Detainees?

Charges still won’t be filed, and conditions in a U.S. prison are likely to be worse.

Detainees observe morning prayer inside Camp Delta at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Inset: President Barack Obama makes a statement about his plan to close the detention camp at Guantánamo at the White House on Feb. 23. (Photo: Reuters)

Feb 23, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

President Obama made what appeared to be a hail Mary pass on Tuesday as he announced, once again, that his administration had prepared a closure plan for the Guantánamo Bay detention center. Evoking talking points from his 2008 campaign, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to closing the controversial prison and called on Congress to help him.

“Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values,” said Obama. “It undermines our standing in the world. It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law.”

The plan estimates that 30 to 60 detainees will be transferred to the U.S. after the detention center’s closure and further detained—still without any charges filed against them—in a location that hasn’t been identified. Yet even if Congress approves the detention center’s closure—which seems unlikely, given Republicans’ distaste for anything Obama does, even things it previously favored or asked him for—advocates are concerned that the regime of indefinite detention without charge that has contributed to the infamous disregard of constitutional rights at Guantánamo will continue, perpetuating the facility’s core problem.

“The idea that the administration would continue the policy of indefinite detention and build a new system for it in the U.S. is incredibly misguided,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents current and former Guantánamo detainees. “That isn’t closing Guantánamo. That’s continuing Guantánamo.”

Ninety-one detainees remain in the detention center, 35 of whom have been approved by the review board for transfer to other countries. Ten of the remaining 56 detainees have been charged or convicted, 22 are considered too dangerous to be released and may be tried before a federal or military court, and 24 will be held indefinitely without trial but are eligible to have their cases reviewed again for release consideration, NPR reports.

Kebriaei emphasized that even if a transfer to a U.S. facility were to occur, clients of hers who have endured more than a decade of the physical and emotional side effects of detention might not “make it…in terms of being put on another plane only to be brought to prison here.” David Remes, a human rights lawyer who represents 12 Guantánamo detainees, echoed her concerns. Five of Remes’ clients have been cleared for transfer, and seven are waiting review.

“Their prison conditions would be worse in the U.S. than at Guantánamo,” Remes told TakePart by email. “The idea that they belong in a maximum security prison is absurd. They haven’t been convicted of any crime.”

Four Republican senators announced on Tuesday the introduction of a bill that would prevent the “modification, termination, abandonment, or transfer” of the U.S. government’s lease with Cuba for the land that houses the detention center. Presidential candidate Marco Rubio quickly endorsed the bill, though no changes to the lease, which was won back when Cuba was a Spanish colony in the 19th century, have been proposed.

“We simply cannot hand over this critical base, especially not as the end result of President Obama’s dangerous plan to release terrorists back into the battlefield or bring them to US soil,” Rubio said in a statement.

Guantanamo’s impact on national security is a recurring talking point in Obama’s arsenal of reasons to shutter the facility. On Tuesday he reiterated that the detention center “does not advance national security—it undermines it,” going on to suggest its existence breeds propaganda for terrorists.

Those working closely with detainees are skeptical of this argument, given that the problems of indefinite detention will be relocated rather than abandoned. “The damage is done,” wrote Remes. “No one will ever forget those orange jumpsuits.”