Indefinite Detention at Guantánamo: More than a Numbers Game | The Center for Victims of Torture

Indefinite Detention at Guantánamo: More than a Numbers Game

Melina Milazzo is CVT senior policy counsel
Thursday, August 25, 2016

Melina Milazzo is CVT senior policy counsel 

Recently, the Obama administration transferred 15 men who were held without charge for over a decade from the Guantánamo prison to the United Arab Emirates. Last week’s transfer is the largest single transfer of detainees under President Obama, bringing the detainee population to 61 - the lowest point since he took office. Of the remaining men, only 10 have been charged with crimes in the military commissions system, 20 have been unanimously cleared for transfer by all U.S. national security and intelligence agencies, and 31 are awaiting clearance. While it may be important to keep tally of the detainees in each category in order to tailor solutions to a politically entrenched problem (of our own making), we should not lose sight of the lives behind the numbers and the consequences of detaining individuals without charge or trial for over a decade.

Infamously labeled by the Bush administration as the “worst of the worst,” most of the men and boys imprisoned at Guantánamo were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were not picked up on a battlefield, but rather turned over to U.S. forces for substantial bounties. Others were – or continue to be—held based on unreliable evidence obtained by torture, coercion or unsubstantiated accusations by other detainees who were rewarded for doing so. Although there are some detainees who have been charged with serious crimes, including those alleged to have committed the September 11th attacks, others were at most low-level al Qaeda figures - drivers, cooks and bookkeepers.

Even when an inter-agency team of U.S. government national security experts determines that a detainee does not pose a threat to U.S. national security interests, some detainees continue to be held simply because of their nationality, not dangerousness. Lee Wolosky, U.S. State Department envoy to close Guantánamo, recently stated that prisoners at Guantánamo are not more dangerous than other detainees, just “more Yemeni.” Indeed, 60% of Guantánamo detainees who have been cleared for transfer are Yemeni but because Congress banned transfers to Yemen due to the country’s instability, the U.S. must find third countries to receive these men, since Congress has also blocked any detainee from being transferred to the United States for any purpose.

Since President Obama took office, Congress has placed onerous restrictions on transferring detainees from Guantánamo. As a result, the vast majority of those who continue to be imprisoned at Guantánamo are being held without charge or trial, most for over a decade. There are serious U.S. national security and economic costs of doing so, but there are also serious physical and psychological costs for the individuals imprisoned there without charge.

The severe, prolonged and harmful health and mental health problems that results from indefinite detention can constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The harmful psychological effects of indefinite detention include severe and chronic anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and enduring personality changes. These severe disorders arise because the indefinitely detained prisoner realizes that nothing he does matters and that there is no way to end, foreshorten or even know the duration of his incarceration.

These effects are exacerbated in detainees who have been traumatized or tortured prior to commencement of indefinite detention. It’s now common knowledge that the United States, as President Obama phrased it, “tortured some folks.” Whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, black sites, or Guantánamo, individuals in U.S. custody were subjected to torture and ill-treatment. 

Congress should work with the President – rather than try to obstruct his efforts to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay and end indefinite detention. The President must continue to direct his administration to transfer the 20 already cleared detainees and provide the remaining 31 detainees administrative reviews to determine if they can be transferred.

While the focus of reducing the detainee population at Guantánamo is critical to ending indefinite detention there, we should not forget that behind those numbers are men who have been imprisoned without charge or trial for over a decade. The cost to U.S. interests is significant, but just as great is the physical and psychological toll to the individuals languishing there. This is more than just a numbers game. 

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