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Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility: An Overview

Last updated: May 15, 2024

Freedom from torture is among the most fundamental human rights. It is categorically prohibited under both domestic and international law. There is no exception – ever.

On January 11, 2002, the United States opened the detention facility at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Nearly eight hundred Muslim men and boys have been held there over the years, all but a handful without charge or trial. Thirty remain, nineteen of whom have never been charged with a crime.

Torture was central to Guantánamo’s founding and still infects its every function. Some officials in the George W. Bush administration referred to Guantánamo as a “Battle Lab,” and the label proved accurate: experiments with torture at Guantánamo spread to Afghanistan, and then to Iraq, as the gruesome images from Abu Ghraib vividly showed.

Many in the Bush administration hoped that Guantánamo would maximize secrecy and impunity for torture, by evading both the law and public scrutiny. One way we know this is that CIA officials and officers seeking approval to torture their first victim, Abu Zubaydah, told their superiors that if they did not kill him they would “need to get reasonable assurances that [Abu Zubaydah] will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.” Their bosses agreed. Four years later, the CIA shipped Zubaydah to Guantánamo, where he remains.

Many of the men at Guantánamo are torture survivors, some formerly disappeared at “black sites” before being sent there. All of them have been exposed to the physical and psychological trauma associated with prolonged indefinite detention, and many are suffering the effects of these abuses. Guantánamo’s captives are aging and increasingly sick with health problems that the military is not able to address there.

At a cost of half a billion dollars per year, Guantánamo is the most expensive detention camp on earth. It is the iconic example of the post-9/11 abandonment of the rule of law and continues to fuel and justify bigotry, stereotyping and stigma. Guantánamo is causing escalating and profound harm to the men who remain there, it undermines U.S. foreign policy, and it threatens U.S. national security.

Putting an end to the extralegal, abhorrent, and wasteful policies and practices with which Guantánamo will forever be synonymous is a human rights obligation, a moral responsibility, and a national security imperative. That is why calls for Guantánamo’s closure have come from a wide range of voices, from the military to medical professionals; international jurists to local activists; organizations with focusses on human rights, civil liberties, immigrants’ rights, racial justice, anti-Muslim discrimination, and more; to the late Senator John McCain.

The short film below, “Still Here,” depicts the journey from trauma toward healing – the struggle to recover from the unimaginable and begin to rebuild a life. The film was inspired by detainees in Guantánamo, many of whom still experience trauma to this day. Content warning: this film depicts physical and psychological struggle.

Still Here