The first month of 2016 brought about serious changes for Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba (Gitmo). In January alone, the Department of Defense authorized the transfer of 14 detainees who were cleared by a review board and deemed “unthreatening” to United States interests. The transfers bring the total number of detainees at Gitmo down to 93. Since its opening in 2002, Gitmo has never had less than one hundred detainees. And with President Obama’s final year agenda focused on shutting down the offshore prison, the base is set to see even more transfers in the upcoming months. Obama’s proposal has brought the future of the detention center to the forefront of American politics and perhaps raised doubts over the United States’ willingness to permanently let go of Gitmo.
While many liberals have praised the proposed closure, conservative congressional representatives are much more concerned about the future of the prisoners. Specifically, Republican Senators Kelly Ayotte, John McCain, Richard Burr and Lindsey Graham have expressed fear that if transferred, dangerous detainees will somehow be able to re-join terrorist organizations. And, as it turns out, some detainees themselves have been hesitant to accept their own transfers off the base. To understand the current complexities regarding detainee transfers, it’s helpful to look back at the climate in which the detention center was created.
The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is the United States’ oldest overseas naval base, first established in 1898 as a potential coal station. While today Guantanamo operates as a detention center, the base had previously served several valuable purposes for the US Navy. It wasn’t until Camp Delta (the official name of the holding center) was established that the base became a center for international controversy. Camp Delta was built in February of 2002, just five months after 9/11. Former President George W. Bush had announced a full blown “war on terror,” and the US was beginning to detain a number of unlawful combatants. At that time, the Bush administration was wary of holding such individuals within US borders, where they would have access to a range of constitutional protections. Camp Delta allowed intelligence officers the chance to speak with detainees and, according to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, gain valuable insights that have “saved lives of people from our country and other countries.”
Unfortunately, what started as a benign attempt to protect US security has transformed into an emblem of American aggression and hostility. Protesters, both at home and abroad, have excoriated the Defense Department for the reported atrocities committed towards inmates. Samir Naji, a Gitmo detainee from Yemen, told TIME that he “was deprived of sleep, drugged, and forced to watch pornographic footage of other prisoners being abused.” Parallels were drawn between the experiences of Samir and other Gitmo inhabitants with the experiences of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers committed severe human rights violations against their detainees.
However, while there have been several reported incidents of brutal mistreatment against inmates, some Gitmo detainees have actually enjoyed surprising liberties while in Cuba. For example, Tariq el-Saweh, a bomb maker closely associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was swept up in 2002 for alleged association with terrorists. In exchange for acting as an insider for the CIA, el-Saweh was permitted to live in a cottage separate from the other inmates, and was allowed to participate in a host of leisure activities like reading, gardening, and painting. In the midst of hunger strikes by several high prominent inmates, el-Saweh feasted on heavy meals of cheeseburgers, french fries, and other American classics. el-Saweh, now cleared of all crimes, faces a distinct Shawshank Redemption-like complex. As a seasoned prisoner, el-Saweh has become comfortable with his life in Gitmo, and has expressed little desire to rush back to the fury, chaos, and instability of the Middle East.
Sharing el-Saweh’s sentiments, Mohammed Bwazir, a Yemeni detainee at Gitmo, actually refused the terms of his transfer. Bwazir rejected an undisclosed country’s offer for sanctuary, citing only that he had no desire to reside in a country in which he has no relatives. Essentially, Bwazir chose to remain at Camp Delta, believing that an alternative could actually be worse than the detention center in Cuba.
The stories of abused prisoners like Samir Naji seem to counter the apprehensions and decisions of detainees like Tariq el-Saweh and Mohammed Bwazir. While very few, if any, prisoners are granted the level of freedom that el-Saweh recieved, the rejection of transfer by Bwazir highlights the fact that some prisoners would still prefer to reside in Guantanamo. The future of the base could subsequently be complicated by conflicting detainee desires. Even if President Obama garnered enough domestic support to de-legitimize and override the arguments of Republican senators, proceeding with the closure of the base will prove to be increasingly challenging. Providing agreeable terms of transfer for more than 90 detainees will surely take more than the 8 months that President Obama has left in office. Then, it will be in the hands of the next administration to rectify the seemingly contrasting and complicated desires of the remaining prisoners.
Christie Huchro is a sophomore studying political science.