COVID-19 has re-emerged at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, and one of the most vulnerable detainees, Nashwan al-Tamir, is hospitalized as a result of the virus. Like other aging detainees, al-Tamir (also known as Abd Al-Hadi Al-Iraqi) is particularly susceptible. He is in his 60s and suffers from a litany of critical conditions, including a degenerative spinal disease that has forced him to endure extensive surgeries and bouts of paralysis. His condition is compounded by the torture and abuse he endured at the hands of the CIA. For al-Tamir, contracting COVID could be a death sentence.
His condition is compounded by the torture and abuse he endured at the hands of the CIA. For al-Tamir, contracting COVID could be a death sentence.”
While outbreaks of COVID at Guantánamo have been kept quiet, the dismal state of medical care for detainees has never been more apparent. As the Senate passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last week, the latest outbreak of COVID at Guantánamo is an important reminder of the urgent need for Congress to hold the administration accountable for addressing the medical care crisis at America’s most notorious detention site.
Amid mounting international condemnation, members of Congress are expressing concerns that Guantánamo is not equipped to address the complex and growing medical needs of detainees. And in this year’s NDAA, the Senate Armed Services Committee has pressed the Pentagon to put a plan in place to address the medical crisis at Guantánamo and directed Sec. of Defense Lloyd Austin to brief lawmakers on its progress by next spring. While the bill contains other harmful provisions that the Biden administration strongly objected to, including a ban on detainees being brought to the United States even for emergency medical care, nevertheless this a first, long overdue step forward.
Renewed Congressional attention to this issue comes as UN experts and the International Red Cross are escalating calls for action due to “systematic shortcomings” in medical expertise, equipment and treatment for detainees. In a scathing report last month, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter terrorism concluded that current conditions at the detention site “amount to, at minimum, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law.”
These deep concerns about the state of medical care at Guantánamo are nothing new. In 2019, key questions were raised about imminent needs for care for diabetes, dialysis, cancer treatment and additional serious medical conditions, by Rear Admiral John Ring, a former commander at Guantánamo. Indeed, people from the military, human rights organizations and medical experts have been speaking out for years. Nevertheless the quality of care has been defended by administration after administration after administration.
Indeed, people from the military, human rights organizations and medical experts have been speaking out for years. Nevertheless the quality of care has been defended by administration after administration after administration.”
Certain existing deficiencies, it should be noted, extend to the civilian and military personnel population as well. This year’s NDAA includes initial funding for a $435 million new healthcare center at Guantánamo. According to the plan’s proposal, the existing facility is “at significant risk of catastrophic failure.” If that’s the state of the existing hospital even for service members and civilians, what does that say about the care being provided to detainees?
Additionally, the proposal for the new healthcare facility does not include any specific facilities for the detainees. As Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired Army brigadier general, explained it would serve only as a “typical primary care community clinic” and is “not intended to support more complicated treatment and procedures, which the detainees may need.” We’ve heard this before; it is what Guantánamo’s chief medical officer said last year about the current state of health care provided to detainees.
As Congress and the international community ramp up the pressure to provide adequate care to detainees and abide by its international obligations, the Biden administration must take these recommendations seriously. The administration aims to close Guantánamo and has reduced the prison’s population to 30 detainees. But for as long as any detainees remain, they must be provided adequate care. Construction on the new hospital hasn’t started and plans should be amended to include the facilities detainees urgently need.
The administration’s plan to address the crisis must also involve independent experts. This process cannot be completed without them. We must not let it be forgotten that military medical personnel were involved in the torture of detainees. The U.S. has to acknowledge the destruction of trust its use of torture caused and bring in independent medical experts who can build trust and provide care for detainees before Guantánamo’s medical crisis goes further out of control.