Nearly Two Decades Since 9/11, why is Guantánamo Bay Still Open?

Lily Frost- Writer

This is the first of a series, exploring the origins and operations of Guantánamo Bay Detention Centre. In this first article I will outline how the prison has violated countless human rights conventions and how US authorities have avoided penalties for these breaches and ultimately why it should be closed.

The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in New York City shook the world. With 2,634 civilians and 343 firefighters dead, America mourned and then shortly turned to discuss the people who might have been responsible. More importantly, public safety was questioned so the focus immediatly shifted to anti-terrorism measures. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, President Bush’s administration officials conferred and decided to take these attacks as acts of war, rather than crimes. However the Geneva Convention, which ensures the ethical treatment of all prisoners of war, proved to be a hurdle for the officials who didn't think the culprits of 9/11 deserved such treatment. The convention dictates that Governments must treat prisoners of war humanely, care for the wounded and sick, ensure the living conditions comply with ethical guidelines as well as ensuring prisoners have access to basic necessities including food and water.

To attempt to bypass this obstacle, a present Justice Department lawyer, John Yoo considered how these rights were outlined as rights for all ‘prisoners’. Therefore he recommended classifying prisoners as ‘detainees’, outside the protection of domestic laws and the Geneva Convention. On September 17th 2001, President Bush signed a classified directive allowing the CIA the power to secretly imprison and interrogate ‘detainees’. Along with this directive, Bush also gave clearance to the CIA to exercise what he coined ‘enhanced interrogation’. This purposefully vague umbrella term authorised the use of torture on all ‘detainees’. So these officials went out and found who they believed to be accomplices to Osama Bin Laden. Many people who were captured were fleeing The Battle of Tora Bora, in Afghanistan, where the US attempted to capture and kill Osama Bin Laden and who they believed to be members of Al Qaeda. It seems George Bush’s declaration of war on terrorism to keep people safe overrode the obligation to respect basic human rights.

Guantánamo Bay’s Early Days - What Human Rights Were Prisoners Not Granted?

When considering locations for a prison for potential terrorists associated with 9/11, all of the options that were considered were not on American soil. The three options were naval bases in Germany, Guam or Guantánamo Bay. So, why were none of the potential ‘special prisons’ in America? This is undoubtedly because an American prison would have had to abide by domestic criminal law and specifically would mean that prisoners have Habeas rights. This recourse, Habeas Corpus includes rights such as the right to report an unlawful detention or imprisonment, a right to a lawyer and a fair trial which seemingly officials wanted to avoid. However, as Guantánamo Bay sits in Cuba, you may assume that the actions of the detention center would have to abide by Cuban Law, although that is not the case. Upon hearing that a prison that would detain only suspected terrorists and it was technically on an American occupied naval facility, Cuba acted as absentee landlords and wanted nothing to do with it. So, here we have plans for a prison, where ‘enhanced interrogation’ has been authorised, as well as avoiding Geneva Convention laws by classifying prisoners as ‘detainees’ on a piece of land which is essentially a legal limbo, not abiding by US or Cuban Law. Carefully crafted, US officials built the detention center of their dreams; far enough away that no one could watch what was happening and authorised by the President himself to use enhanced interrogation on prisoners that the Geneva Convention no longer had jurisdiction over.

Day One
The commander of Guantánamo Bay when the first prisoners entered was General Micheal R Lenhert. He was interviewed on a podcast named The Other Latif, a series about the life of Abdul Latif Nasir, a prisoner who has been and still is being held in Guantánamo Bay with no charges against him. In this interview he was asked about what he witnessed on January 11th 2002, when the first prisoners entered. He described:

They had the goggles on, they had gloves on...the intent and their trip across  - I’m not not entirely sure who made that decision, was to provide sensory deprivation...Most of them were severely dehydrated. They had been not allowed to use the bathroom,  they were wearing diapers. They were all clean shaven, I suspected that that was not voluntary.

In this interview Lenhert revealed more about what basic human rights they lacked. He stated:

The one thing that made me extraordinarily uncomfortable was the absence of Article Five Hearings. An Article Five hearing is a hearing that is supposed to take place as close to the point of capture as possible to determine whether there is sufficient grounds to hold them. I went back a couple of times, twice in fact recommending Article 5 hearings be held and both times I was told no.

USA Patriot Act
In case anyone suddenly thought that surely someone could file against the US on habeas corpus grounds because technically they are being detained under the US Government? You would be right, and President Bush knew it. Six weeks after the events of 9/11, President Bush granted the USA Patriot Act which restricted the right of habeas corpus to suspected terrorists. This meant that it was perfectly legal for prisoners at Guantánamo Bay to have no legal council or fair trial. It is important to note that this act directly breaches the Geneva Convention. This is as it states, ‘willfully depriving a prisoner of war the rights of a fair and regular trial is deemed a grave breach of the convention and consequentially, a war crime’. However, US officials clearly didn’t agree, so instead for years prisoners had no contact with the outside world, apart from their interrogators. They could not ask for rights because they were not allowed lawyers. As most of us now know, no lawyers meant illegal torture took place.

The International Committee of the Red Cross inspected the camp in 2004 and wrote their findings in a confidential report. Red Cross inspectors accused the US Military of using, ‘humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes and use of forced positions’. They later stated:

The construction of such a system, whose stated purpose is the production of information, cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture.

Many released prisoners reported that they experienced much worse than just physical torture. They said that they experienced sleep deprivation, prolonged hooding, cultural and sexual humiliation, enemas as well as other forced injections. A defence attorney also stated that his client was sexually interrogated. An american interrogator ‘slipped her hands into her pants and pulled it out with a red liquid smeared on it meant to look like menstrual blood’. The interrogator then explained to the detainee that he would now feel too dirty to pray. There have been other instances where interrogators have desecrated on the Quran. Every single one of these methods break domestic and international human rights law, and is a far cry from any legitimate form of interrogation.

Living Conditions
The detention center is split up into camps. As a prisoner you are placed based on your compliance during interrogations. There are three main areas; Camp Delta, Camp Echo and Camp Iguana. Within Camp Delta you have numbered camps from 1-7. Camp 7 or Camp Platinum is notorious for how little the general public knows about it. It is used to house ‘high-value detainees’ formerly held by the CIA. Its location is classified, and on only one occasion were external people allowed in. During this visit the lawyers reported that the conditions at Camp 7 ‘fell short of the minimum guarantees of humane treatment under the Geneva Convention’. The lawyers sent a letter to The Pentagon addressing their concerns, in which they asked for the letter to be treated as a report of possible ‘violation of the law of war’. The details of this letter are classified, but this is just one camp within the site. How can we be sure that there aren't CIA secret ‘black sites’ for prisoners of interest?

Guantánamo Bay can only be described as a lawless, indefinite hell. Intentionally created to sit in a legal limbo, where no prisoner has a trial or a charge. Without legal representatives, prisoners can not report abuse nor can they prove their innocence. Every single legal system in place around the world has let them down. For those who may still be in two minds, consider the fact that the commander who opened Guantánamo Bay in 2002, General Micheal R Lenhert commented on the camp recently as a ‘prison that should never have been opened’.

In the next article, I will explore what each US Government did to attempt to close Guantánamo Bay, what prisoners did to grab the attention of the world and how much closer we are to it being closed.

If you want more information, please visit the Amnesty International website here.

Photo Credit -

The Other Latif  Podcast by Latif Nasser, Radiolab. Episodes 1-6.
The Geneva Convention -
The USA Patriot Act -


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