Explain: Why half the Guantanamo prisoners could come out

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration has quietly laid the groundwork for the release of Guantanamo detainees …

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 detainees, including some denied according to previous reviews, were made in recent weeks as the administration faced criticism from human rights groups for failing to close Guantanamo, releasing only one prisoner in the last year.

Look at where things stand:


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, including in some cases finding countries willing to accept prisoners and impose security controls on them. But some may start leaving in the coming weeks and months.


Theoretically, yes. But even if the U.S. releases all 20 leaving, the question remains as to what to do with the rest. 10 of those still before the military commission. Among them are five accused of planning and aiding the 9/11 attacks. The case of the death penalty has been embroiled in pre-trial proceedings for many years and still has no start date. One potential solution would be a plea deal to close all pending cases, but this still leaves open the question of where they will serve their sentences.


The United States opened a detention center under President George W. Bush in January 2001 after the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan to hold and interrogate prisoners suspected of links to al Qaeda or the Taliban. About 780 people passed through Guantanamo, reaching a peak of about 680 in 2003. Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is known to have called the detainees “the worst of the worst,” but many were low-level militants, some had nothing to do with terrorism, and few would be charged with a 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 Trump, one prisoner was released as part of a plea deal, bringing the total to 40. Biden himself said little about Guantanamo, which has largely fallen out of political scrutiny. So far, only one prisoner has been released under his leadership.


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, there has been behind-the-scenes work with the Periodic Review Board, which has never been popular with detainee defenders, 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 Biden administration considers “a deliberate and thorough process aimed at responsibly reducing the number of prisoners and closing Guantanamo Bay,” said Pentagon Deputy Spokesman J. Todd Brasil.

Among the factors they take into account, said Bresil, is the age and health of the detainees. Among them is Mohammed al-Qahtani, a mentally ill Saudi man who authorities said he intended to be one of the kidnappers on Sept. 11 but was prevented from entering the U.S. by a suspicious customs officer at Orlando airport. 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.

A review commission, the PRB, recently cleared a 47-year-old Somali who is the first of the “high-value detainees” recognized as such because they were held in underground CIA prisons known as black sites.


Some Republicans in Congress have expressed outrage at al-Qahtani’s decision. Alabama MP Mike Rogers, a senior member of the Republican Party’s House Armed Services Committee, called it a “terrible surrender to the far left.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is critical of the policy of wider closure of 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 PRB’s decision, but want to see if the administration is carrying out the release. 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. He said the administration should start actually releasing those who have been cleared. “It’s a positive thing when these people have been cleansed,” he said. “But it’s not significant progress towards closure if there are no carryovers.”

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