WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration has quietly laid the groundwork for the release of detainees from Guantanamo Bay and has at least come close to closing it. A supervisory commission comprising military and intelligence officials has now determined that more than half of the 39 people being held indefinitely at a U.S. base in Cuba could be safely released home or sent to another country. Decisions against several of these prisoners, including some denied in previous reviews, were made in recent weeks when the administration faced criticism from human rights groups for not doing more to close Guantanamo, released only one prisoner in the last year.
Where things stand:
DO BIDEN’S ADMINISTRATION CONSIDER GUANTANOM?
No. Of the recent decisions, there are now 20 inmates entitled to release or transfer, and one is due to serve his sentence shortly after being convicted by a military plea commission. Much remains to be done, for example, in some cases to find countries willing to accept prisoners and introduce security controls for them. But some may start leaving in the coming weeks and months.
WILL IT SAY THAT THE UNITED STATES IS CLOSER TO TERMINATION OF GUANTANOMA?
Theoretically, yes. But even if the U.S. releases all 20, what to do with the rest? 10 are still before the military commission. Among them are five accused of planning and aiding the 9/11 attacks. The case of the death penalty threatened in pre-trial litigation for many years, and there is still no start date. One potential solution would be a plea deal to close all pending cases, but this leaves open the question of where they will serve their sentences.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
The United States opened a detention center under President George W. Bush in January 2002 after the September 11 terrorist attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan. It was designed to hold and interrogate prisoners suspected of links to al Qaeda or the Taliban. About 780 people passed through Guantanamo, which peaked at 680 in 2003. Bush Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, of course, called those detained there “the worst of the worst,” but many of them were low-level. militants, some of whom had nothing to do with terrorism, and few will be charged with the crime.
As reports of torture and abuse emerged, the detention center became a lightning rod for international criticism from American allies and a propaganda price for enemies. Bush released 532 prisoners, but left it to his successor to figure out what to do with the rest.
President Barack Obama has promised to close Guantanamo after taking office. But members of Congress opposed the idea of transferring prisoners to the United States, even before a court in federal court. The Obama administration has set up a Periodic Review Committee to assess prisoners and determine whether they can be released without compromising national security. Under Obama, 197 prisoners left Guantanamo.
Under President Donald Trump, one prisoner was released as part of a plea dealbringing their total to 40. President Joe Biden said little about Guantanamo, which has largely fallen out of the political spotlight. So far, only one prisoner has been released under his leadership.
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN LAST WEEK?
In January, human rights groups marked the 20th anniversary of Guantanamo’s opening and lamented that they had seen no progress in closing. Since then, the council has been behind the scenes, which has never been popular with defenders of detainees, but has been one of the few ways out of prison. When Biden came to office, there were five cleared detainees; four were survived by the Obama administration, and one was approved under Trump. Under Biden, 15 have been cleared so far, including more than half a dozen in recent weeks.
This is what the administration considers “a deliberate and thorough process aimed at responsibly reducing the number of prisoners and closing the Guantanamo facility,” said Pentagon Deputy Spokesman J. Todd Brasil.
Among the factors they take into account, said Bresil, is the age and health of the detainees. They included Mohammed al-Qahtani, a mentally ill Saudi Arabia who, authorities said, intended to become one of the kidnappers on Sept. 11 but was prevented from entering the U.S. by a suspicious customs officer at Orlando Airport, Florida. Bush’s legal official concluded that al-Qahtani had been tortured at Guantanamo, and attempts to try him by a military commission were thwarted.
Also released under Biden is Saiful Paracha, a Pakistani with various medical conditions, who at 74 is the oldest prisoner at Guantanamo.
The review commission first cleared one of the “high-value detainees,” who were named because they were held in underground CIA prisons known as black sites.
WHAT WAS THE REACTION?
Some Republicans in Congress have expressed outrage at al-Qahtani’s decision. Alabama MP Mike Rogers, a senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, called it a “terrible surrender to the far left.” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Is critical of the broader policy of closing Guantanamo, which he recently defended as “a very safe, humane and perfectly legal place to detain terrorists.” By law, Congress must be notified in advance of any expected relocation or release, but is largely unable to stop it.
There is a wait-and-see attitude among the defenders of the detainees. They welcome the council’s decisions, but want to see if the administration is complying with the releases. Wells Dixon, a lawyer for the New York Center for Constitutional Rights, expects what will happen to his client Majid Khan, a prisoner who has reached a plea deal and has almost served his sentence. “It’s positive that these people have been cleansed,” Dixon said. “But it’s not significant progress towards closure if there are no carryovers.”