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The indelible mark of Guantánamo

Barack Obama’s legacy could be tarnished if penitentiary is kept open after he leaves office

Camp X-Ray, where the first inmates at Guantánamo Bay were held.
Camp X-Ray, where the first inmates at Guantánamo Bay were held.TOM VAN DE WEGHE

With 20 months left in office, time is running out for US President Barack Obama to fulfill his promise and close the controversial military detention camp at the naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Of the 122 detainees still being held at Gitmo, as the prison is known, only 10 have been sentenced or are facing charges related to terrorism. The US military courts have allowed 57 of the inmates to be moved to other nations, but those detainees are still waiting for a foreign government to accept them.

Images of inmates dressed in orange jumpsuits have been shown across the world, putting Washington in a questionable position regarding human rights

Guantánamo, which was set up by Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush, has been a political embarrassment for the Obama administration. Hundreds of images of inmates – most of them from Yemen – dressed in orange jumpsuits and kneeling on the ground have been shown across the world, putting Washington in a questionable position regarding human rights.

The United States began leasing the base at Guantánamo in 1903. But for the past 13 years, it has become a symbol of abuses by the US government in its war on terrorism.

Camp X-Ray, as it is now known, was the first detention center set up to hold prisoners who were captured around the globe in secret operations following the September 11, 2001 attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

One prisoner was questioned for 20 hours daily for 49 days, held naked in a freezing cold cell

The Bush administration sidestepped the federal courts and international treaties regarding the treatment of criminal suspects by setting up a parallel military judicial system to put the inmates on trial behind closed doors.

Today, Camp X-Ray is in a legal limbo: a federal judge has issued an order prohibiting its dismantling.

Behind the dry weeds in the southeastern corner of Cuba dozens of tiny prison cells – measuring two square meters – with rusting bars can be seen from afar.

Two wooden houses where inmates were interrogated – according to a leaked classified report – still stand. One prisoner was questioned there for 20 hours daily for 49 days, held naked in a freezing cold cell, and forced to act like a dog and listen to music at high volume, according to the report.

Camps 5 and 6 are where most of the 122 inmates are being held. The camps were originally set up in the 1990s to hold Cuban and Haitian refugees who were considered dangerous. Each year the prison population drops. In 2003, there were 684 inmates.

An inmate is seen at a Camp 6 section where 22 jail cells have been set up.
An inmate is seen at a Camp 6 section where 22 jail cells have been set up.TOM VAN DE WEGHE

David Heath, the military prison’s warden, told a group of reporters late last month that as “a human being” he can “sympathize” with the frustrations of many inmates who complain they are being held illegally without any formal charges filed.

“I treat everyone with the dignity everyone deserves,” said Army Colonel Heath. “And I will continue to do so until they are gone – whether that will be in one or five years from now. That’s not my decision.”

Guantánamo’s future will be decided in Washington.

Ashton Carter, the new US defense secretary, has not issued any orders giving permission for inmates to be transferred to another country. The last releases took place in January, before Carter was appointed.

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel admitted to CNN in January that he was under pressure from the White House to quicken the pace of the release of detainees at Guantánamo, which was what prompted his resignation.

Lt. Col. Myles Caggins, the Defense Department’s detentions spokesman, said the Pentagon – which has the sole authority for prisoners at the prison – will transfer 10 inmates by September and is working to move forward in the releases of 57 other detainees that have been authorized to be set free.

I treat everyone with the dignity everyone deserves. And I will continue to do so until they are gone” Military prison warden David Heath

But it may not be fast enough for Obama to comply with his promise to move all prisoners out of Guantánamo before he leaves office.

The Republican-majority Congress is debating a new bill that would prohibit the president from transferring inmates stateside for imprisonment or moving them to a third country. If passed, the bill would in effect keep the prison camp opened.

But the White House, according to The Washington Post, is considering unilateral closure if lawmakers approve the bill.

Even though Obama has announced the re-establishment of relations with Havana, a continued operation at Guantánamo would most likely be the biggest black mark for his presidency.

In March, the US president said if he could start his presidency over, he would have closed the prison his first day in office in 2009. But he explained that he believed at the time that there was a congressional consensus to transfer the prisoners stateside or other countries.

The Republican-held Congress is debating a new bill that would prohibit the president from transferring inmates

Washington spends about $400 million a year to maintain the prison.

Heath, who has been the warden for a year and has another year to go, said he supports the closure but at the same time would also back any decision to keep the military prison in operation indefinitely.

He also distanced himself from the reports of torture that allegedly took place at the prison until 2004. “There is no torture going on here. I can't speak for what happened in the past” he said.

Many of the 2,000 workers who now guard the prison were young children when the September 11 attacks took place. And Guantánamo still retains its Orwellian atmosphere: not only are the inmates’ movements monitored but journalists on the recent field trip were closely escorted. Photographs of certain areas are prohibited. Areas such as Camp 7, where the most dangerous inmates are kept, officially do not exist.

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