Groundhog Day In Guantanámo Bay

It is Groundhog Day in Guantanámo Bay. I visited four of Reprieve’s clients last week. One was Abdul Latif Nasser, who was cleared for release to his native Morocco last year, after six US intelligence agencies determined he was no threat to anyone. He narrowly missed the plane home when the Obama Administration failed to organize his transfer before Donald Trump took office; the new president promises to keep the prison open, and end any releases. Understandably, Abdul Latif seemed downhearted.

Then there was Ahmed Rabbani, a Karachi taxi driver who was mistaken 15 years ago for a big time terrorist called Hassan Ghul. He spent 545 days in the CIA secret prison programme before making it to Guantanámo. The US Senate Report classifies him as one of the rare prisoners “who was subject to [torture] techniques without the approval of CIA headquarters.” (I struggle to understand why it might have been better if American authorities had authorized it.)

Or there is Haroon al Afghani, the last Afghan among the 24, who is alleged to have played a minor role with a group that vehemently opposed the Al Qaida interlopers, and who now play a role in the US-backed government. Or Khalid Qassim who (as he would say of himself) is simply nobody, from Yemen. And so it goes on and on. The original 762 “low value” detainees were identified by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the “worst of the worst” terrorists in the world. Far from it. Even after distilling them to just 24, they are a motley crew.

I first came to Guantanámo in 2004. Thirteen years on, it remains surreal. The sign near the prison camp still boasts in massive letters, along nine drums of concrete, that we are “Honor Bound” to defend freedom. There is no solitary confinement – only “single cell operations.” The military on the base continue to use fake names as if revealing their true identity will attract ISIS into middle America – this time, I was shepherded around by Wookie, Jack Sparrow, King Kong and others.

But the officers were uniformly polite and helpful, trying hard to keep busy. With more than two thousand soldiers, there are 50 for each detainee. The annual cost is estimated to be $454 million, a shade over $11 million per prisoner per year. By way of contrast, this is more than 100 times more than the costliest prison in the U.S. – a Colorado Supermax, which is a snip at $78,000. Each of my clients offers his own take on better ways of spending his millions.

In short, if Donald Trump had any interest in a sensible budget, he would begin by cutting out this monumental waste of money. It is a shame that President Obama failed to fulfil his promise to close the prison, but this should not lessen our own commitment to make sure it happens.

<emClive Stafford Smith is the founder of international human rights group Reprieve.

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