Twenty years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States continues to wage the “war on terror” in the mountainous terrain in southeastern Cuba known as Guantanamo Bay.
A few months after the attacks, the United States arrested hundreds of people with alleged links to the al-Qaeda network. These were transferred to the naval base that Washington controls on the Caribbean island.
They were labeled “enemy combatants” and imprisoned indefinitely until, according to then Vice President Dick Cheney, “the war on terror is over” — but officially the conflict is still ongoing.
The majority of 780 suspects who were incarcerated in cage-like cells was released, many times after spending more than a decade at the base. without ever having been formally charged with a crime.
Currently, 39 detainees remain at Guantanamo. Some of them were promised a freedom that never came. At least 12 are considered by Washington to be dangerous al-Qaeda leaders, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
Under the chairmanship of Joe Biden, legal proceedings resumed after a delay caused primarily by the covid-19 pandemic.
On Sept. 7, after a 17-month hiatus, pre-trial hearings for Mohammed and four others will resume, four days before the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
But there is no certainty that a verdict will be reached for the five before the 21st anniversary of the attacks, in 2022, or the 22nd, in 2023.
Guantanamo prison on the island of Cuba in a 2016 photo — Photo: AP
The system of military commissions overseeing al-Qaeda’s 12 defendants has proven to be chaotic, cumbersome and often contrary to US law, to the point that in 20 years only two people have been convicted.
Benjamin Farley, a Defense Department attorney representing one of the five defendants in the Sept. 11 trial, called the commissions “an expensive and failed experiment in ad hoc justice” (instituted for a specific purpose and deadline).
Marked by accusations that the government withheld and falsified evidence and that the lawyers contacted their clients only by telephone, the process was marked above all by detainees’ allegations of brutal torture.
“I think everyone knows the commissions are a failure,” said Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The problems are so many that the other 10 could spend the rest of their lives in Guantanamo, he told AFP.
Guantanamo proved to be both a headache and an embarrassment to the US government, which has been accused of widespread human rights abuses.
Isolated on a rocky coastline several kilometers from the main naval base at Guantanamo, the facility gained notoriety as a result of the CIA’s operation to capture suspected al-Qaeda members and secretly transfer them to its clandestine detention centers scattered around the world.
In these places, detainees were subjected – for days, weeks and even years – to intense interrogation and torture, including the simulation of drowning known as a “submarine”.
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They were then taken to Guantanamo and the government of Republican George W. Bush determined that they could not avail themselves of the protections of the Geneva Conventions or US law.
In January 2002, the naval base had 20 detainees, but the number quickly skyrocketed to 780.
Against the vast majority of them, the government lacked evidence that they had links to al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks.
They were released in silence, although some waited 10 years.
One night in 2006, three prisoners were found hanging in their cells. Their jailers claimed “coordinated suicides,” but evidence emerged that they had been killed by those interrogating them.
US Naval Expeditionary Guard Battalion Marine Observes Detainees in Block 6 of Guantanamo Prison, March 30, 2010 — Photo: Reuters/MC3 Joshua Nistas/US Navy/Handout via Reuters
When Democrat Barack Obama assumed the presidency in January 2009, there were still about 240 detainees.
A senior official in his government said at the time that the arrest was not only an embarrassment to the reputation of the United States, but also an “advertising tool” for the jihadists.
One of Obama’s first actions was to order the closure of Guantanamo within a year. But Republican lawmakers blocked the congressional closure, leaving detainees in legal limbo.
Obama, however, pressed to release the majority and only 41 detainees remained at the scene when Donald Trump took office in January 2017.
Rather than continue with the releases, Trump froze them and threatened to fill more Guantanamo cells with Islamic State fighters captured in Iraq and Syria.
Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, was in favor of closing the prison. However, according to analysts, he will not follow the same path as Obama, as he would fail again in the attempt.
In May, military commissions resumed hearings, and since then Biden has tried to press for the silent release of those who will not be tried.