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Ongoing Harms at Guantanamo

Last updated: March 28, 2024

Since the Guantánamo Bay detention facility opened in 2002, it has caused, and continues to cause, escalating and profound damage to the men who still languish there. The approach Guantánamo exemplifies – and the post-9/11 rhetoric used to justify its operations – fuels and justifies bigotry, stereotyping and stigma against Muslims and communities of color at home and abroad.

Nearly 800 Muslim men and boys were held at Guantánamo after 2002, all but a handful without charge or trial, further reinforcing an anti-Islam narrative that permeated the United States’ response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. This narrative created space for discriminatory policies against Muslim citizens and communities of color under the guise of national security.

The United States in still holding thirty Muslim men at Guantánamo, many who are torture survivors, some formerly disappeared at “black sites” before being sent there. The effects of their physical and psychological torture include: scars, headaches, musculoskeletal pains, hearing loss, visual problems, neurological damage, nightmares, insomnia, memory loss, fatigue, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

All of the men who remain have been exposed to the physical and psychological trauma associated with prolonged indefinite detention, which creates uncertainty, unpredictability and loss of control over the elemental aspects of one’s life. Effects of indefinite detention include severe and chronic anxiety and dread, depression and suicide, PTSD and personality changes.

Guantánamo was chosen deliberately as the location to hold Muslim men, torture survivors in particular, in the hope that the United States could operate there outside the reach of international and domestic law. The U.S. government continues to refuse to afford fundamental constitutional rights and protections to those held there, even in cases of detainees who have been recommended for release by every government agency with a significant national security function.

The military commissions, the makeshift court system that President George W. Bush established at Guantánamo to prosecute non-citizen terrorism suspects without providing them basic rights, violates international and domestic fair trial standards. According to Brig. Gen. John Baker, the commissions chief defense counsel from 2015 to 2021, “the legitimacy of commission prosecutions has also been severely undermined by repeated gross violations of defense counsels’ relationship with their clients”—for example, placement of listening devices in attorney-client interview rooms and placement of informants on defense teams.” And, of course, there is what Gen. Baker termed the government’s “original sin, torture,” which “impacts and undermines every aspect of these prosecutions.”

Family members of 9/11 victims have called on the government to close Guantánamo and for an end to the unfair, “shameful” military commissions, which have not brought any form of justice or closure to them.

In Guantánamo’s early years, European allies of the United States feared cooperating with the U.S. in counterterrorism efforts due to possible backlash from their citizens as reports surfaced about the offshore camp and use of torture. The United Kingdom questioned the U.S.’ ability to treat prisoners humanely. The United Nations and its representatives have repeatedly called on the United States to adhere to its international human rights obligations, and to work toward accountability as it has set a dangerous precedent for others to act with impunity.

At the cost of half a billion dollars per year, Guantánamo is the most expensive such facility in the world.