EXPLAINER: Why half of Guantanamo prisoners could get out | Government and politics

By BEN FOX – Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration has been quietly laying the groundwork for releasing prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention center and at least moving closer to the possibility of closing it. A review board including military and intelligence officials has now determined that more than half of the 39 men held indefinitely without charge at the US base in Cuba can now be safely released to their home countries or sent to other countries. another country. Decisions on several of these prisoners, some of whom have been denied in previous reviews, have come in recent weeks as the administration has been the subject of criticism from human rights groups for not doing more to close Guantanamo, releasing only one prisoner in the past year.

An overview of the state of affairs:

IS THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION ABOUT TO EMPTY GUANTANAMO?

No. With the most recent rulings, there are now 20 prisoners deemed eligible for release or transfer and one is soon to serve his sentence after being sentenced by military commission as part of a plea deal. Much remains to be done, including, in some cases, finding countries willing to accept prisoners and impose security checks on them. But some could start leaving in the weeks and months to come.

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DOES THIS MEAN THE US IS CLOSER TO CLOSING GUANTANAMO?

In theory, yes. But even if the US releases all 20, the question remains what to do with the rest. There are 10 who have yet to be tried by a military commission. Among them, five are accused of planning and aiding the September 11 attack. The death penalty case has been mired in pretrial litigation for years and still has no start date. A potential solution would be to negotiate pleas to end all ongoing cases, but that still leaves open the question of where they would serve the sentences.

The United States opened the detention center under President George W. Bush in January 2001 following the September 11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan to hold and interrogate prisoners suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda or the Taliban. About 780 men passed through Guantanamo, peaking at about 680 in 2003. Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to the detained men as “the worst of the worst”, but many were low-level militants. level, some had no connection to terrorism and few would ever be charged with a crime.

As reports of torture and abuse emerged, the detention center became a lightning rod for international criticism from US allies and a propaganda bonanza for enemies. Bush freed 532 prisoners but left it to his successor to decide what to do with the rest.

President Barack Obama pledged to shut down Guantanamo upon taking office. But members of Congress have resisted the idea of ​​transferring prisoners to the United States, even to be tried in federal court. The Obama administration created the Periodic Review Committee to assess prisoners and determine if they could be released without posing a threat to national security. Under Obama, 197 prisoners left Guantanamo.

Under Trump, only one prisoner was released as part of a plea bargain, bringing the total to 40. Biden himself said little about Guantanamo, which has largely disappeared from the political spotlight. So far, only one prisoner has been released under his administration.

WHAT HAPPENED THE LAST WEEKS?

In January, human rights groups marked the 20th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo and lamented what they saw as a lack of progress on the closure. Since then, there has been behind-the-scenes activity with the Periodic Review Committee, which has never been popular with inmate advocates, but has been one of the few ways out of confinement. When Biden took office, there were five cleared inmates; four were remnants of the Obama administration and one was endorsed under Trump. Under Biden, 15 have been exonerated so far, including more than half a dozen in recent weeks.

It’s what the Biden administration sees as a “deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and closing the Guantanamo facility,” according to Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary J. Todd. Breasseale.

Among the factors they take into account, Breasseale said, are the age and health of inmates. They included Mohammad al-Qahtani, a mentally ill Saudi who authorities say intended to be one of the 9/11 hijackers, but was prevented from entering the United States by a suspicious customs officer at the airport from Orlando. A Bush legal official has concluded that al-Qahtani was tortured at Guantanamo and an effort to try him by military commission was dropped.

Saifullah Paracha, a Pakistani with various health conditions who, at 74, is also Guantanamo’s longest-serving prisoner, was also cleared under Biden.

The review board, the PRB, recently cleared a 47-year-old Somali man who is the first of the “high-value detainees”, designated as such because they were held in the clandestine CIA prisons known as black sites.

WHAT WAS THE REACTION?

Some Republicans in Congress have expressed outrage over al-Qahtani’s decision. Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the prominent GOP member of the House Armed Services Committee, called it “an appalling capitulation to the far left.” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is more broadly critical of the policy to shut down Guantanamo, which he recently defended as “a highly secure, humane, and entirely legal place to hold terrorists.” By law, Congress must be notified in advance of any pending transfer or release, but it is largely powerless to prevent it from happening.

Among prisoners’ advocates, there is a wait-and-see attitude. They welcome the PRB’s decisions but want to see if the administration follows up on the press releases. Wells Dixon, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights based in New York, is waiting to see what happens with his client, Majid Khan, the prisoner who has entered into a plea bargain and has almost served his sentence. He said the administration must start releasing those who have been cleared. “It’s a positive thing that these men are cleared,” he said. “But it’s not significant progress towards closure unless there are transfers.”

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