Over 100 national and local human rights organizations called on President Joe Biden Tuesday to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention facility once and for all.
“It is long past time for both a sea change in the United States’ approach to national and human security and a meaningful reckoning with the full scope of damage that the post-9/11 approach has caused. Closing Guantánamo and ending indefinite detention of those held there is a necessary step towards those ends,” read a letter from the Center for Constitutional Rights, American Civil Liberties Union, The Center for Victims of Torture, Amnesty International, and dozens of others shared exclusively with HuffPost.
The controversial camp, which was established by former President George W. Bush in 2002 following the Sept. 11 attacks and initially meant to detain terrorism suspects, has morphed into a human rights black site. Since its opening, nearly 800 men and boys have passed through its cells, where many were subjected to torture and held without charge or trial.
Biden had previously pledged to follow through on former President Barack Obama’s efforts to close the facility, which currently houses approximately 40 individuals. About 1,500 troops also serve in Cuba alongside 6,000 residents of the surrounding area.
But the administration hasn’t offered any further details or timeline. And closing the camp is both politically and logistically tricky.
The administration would need to figure out what to do with the remaining captives –– several of whom have already been cleared for release and others who have been indefinitely detained without trial. Another difficulty is the COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed the military commission proceedings for the men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks which were originally scheduled to begin last month.
Last week, the Pentagon announced it would pause its plan to vaccinate those held at Guantanamo Bay after backlash from critics and members of the Republican Party. A group of former prisoners who at one point were detained at Guantanamo Bay also penned a separate letter to Biden on Friday echoing the calls for him to close down the facility.
The Department of Defense did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment about the administration’s plans for the facility.
Running the facility has cost over $540 million in one year ― almost $13 million per prisoner ― according to a 2019 report, making it the world’s most expensive detention facility. But it’s remained open through multiple presidencies. In 2018, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep the prison open after pledging during his campaign to “load it up with some bad dudes.”
Gitmo has been dubbed as the “legal equivalent of outer space” where no laws are intended to apply. Former detainees and media reports have detailed horror stories of torture and abuse that took place there, including food and sleep deprivation, beatings, waterboarding and sexual humiliation.
Scott Roehm, the Washington director at The Center for Victims of Torture, described the facility as a representation of the United States’ “destructive approach to national security.”
“It’s a cancer that for two decades has metastasized throughout U.S. domestic and foreign policy and Guantanamo is the tumor that needs to be excised as a first step towards curing the rest,” Roehm said. “That’s why you see so many groups working on so many different issues and representing such a diverse set of communities, coming together to push the president to finally close the prison.
Mohamedou Salahi, a Mauritanian citizen who spent more than 14 years in detention at Guantanamo Bay, was among those subjected to repeated brutal and severe torture including being “beaten, sexually throttled, put in extreme isolation, shackled to the floor, stripped naked and put under strobe lights while being blasted with heavy metal music,” according to a Justice Department investigation.
“I had no chance to defend myself inside Guantanamo Bay or make public appearances to challenge the narrative.”
“Guantanamo Bay is simply a violation of human rights, of human dignity and need to stop these exceptions that people from my part of the world, i.e., Africa and the Middle East, don’t have the right for human life,” Salahi told HuffPost over the phone from Mauritania.
“I can’t stand this anymore and I don’t want [Gitmo to exist] anymore and I’m ready to use my profile, my money, my standing, and everything that is legal to enjoy those same rights,” he added.
He was never charged with an offense during his time at Gitmo. One year after releasing his 2015 memoir, “Guantánamo Diary,” Salahi was released to Mauritania.
“I had no chance to defend myself inside Guantanamo Bay or make public appearances to challenge the narrative,” he said.
Salahi considers himself lucky. He was able to earn some money from his memoir and is currently working on his second book. (His memoir was adapted into a film starring Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch set to premiere this month.)
Still, he faces challenges trying to rebuild a life after Gitmo. He’s unable to travel to Germany where his wife and 2-year-old son reside. He wants to ensure that no one else suffers his same fate. He is hopeful that Biden will be more successful than his predecessors and permanently shut down Gitmo.
“The accountability for the torture program and Guantanamo is still unresolved and that is still something we’re fighting for and have continued to,” said Aliya Hussain, advocacy program manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Each administration since then has played some role in sort of upholding that.”
Over 700 men have been released over the years, but the trauma, physical and psychological impacts as well as the stigma of being held at Gitmo continues to haunt those men, said Hussain. She noted that many of those held have little to no access to rehabilitation services and are struggling to resume a normal life.
Despite the challenges and likely resistance from the GOP, advocates and legal organizations who signed on to Tuesday’s letter are hopeful that the Biden administration will finally shutter Gitmo’s doors and end its legacy for good.
“Vice President Biden was one of the most reliable and determined voices for closing Guantanamo and for upholding the prohibition on torture. And now he has the power to actually close the prison’s doors. He can do that. He just needs to follow through on the legacy that he’s had until now,” said Roehm.