- Guantanamo Bay prison has a legacy rooted in white supremacy.
- Mired in a problematic history and present, including detention and torture, there is nothing that can reform the prison.
- After more than 19 years, the detention facility should be abolished, not just closed.
- Dr. Maha Hilal is currently Co-Director of Justice for Muslims Collective.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
“I believe it is time for the detention facility at Guantanamo to close its doors,”Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin wrote in his written responses to Congress during his recent confirmation hearing.
As a longtime advocate of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, these are welcome words. But we can’t just close Guantanamo, we need to abolish it.
Abolishing Guantanamo means more than just closing the physical prison or transferring the 40 prisoners still detained. It will entail deconstructing the entire ‘war on terror’ paradigm, which treats terrorism as an exceptional form of violence that necessitates extraordinary interventions.
Abolition is about rooting out Islamophobia so “Muslim” is no longer treated as synonymous with “terrorist.” Abolition means abandoning the hurtful and inaccurate Muslim tropes used by the US to excuse indefinite detention and torture.
Gitmo’s dark history
After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration began looking for “the legal equivalent of outer space,” or in other words, a prison that exists outside the jurisdiction of US courts. Guantanamo was the obvious choice.
Like prisons based in the domestic United States, this floating cage’s legacy is steeped in white supremacy and American imperialism. In 1898, using the threat of continued military occupation, the US convinced Cuba to indefinitely lease a forty-five-square-mile port to the US for military use. While it would be Cuban territory, the US would have “complete jurisdiction and control.”
Over the years, US presidents, including George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, used this base to indefinitely detain refugees attempting to flee to the US for political asylum. In the summer of 1994 alone, “more than 20,000 Haitians and 30,000 Cubans were intercepted at sea and delivered to hastily erected camps in Guantanamo.”
Using “foreign sovereignty” as legal cover, the US government has sent hundreds of Muslim men to languish in this prison without charge. The Bush administration designated these prisoners as unlawful enemy combatants, meaning they were not entitled to the protections afforded to them by the Geneva Conventions: a set of standards for prisoners of war created in the aftermath of World War II.
Moreover, Guantanamo has been the site of egregious torture, where the US military subjected the men detained there to forced standing, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, and religious abuse among other tactics.
If that wasn’t bad enough, nine men have died — including seven by apparent suicide. At present, 40 prisoners remain detained, the majority of whom are considered “forever prisoners.” Only eight out of 780 Muslim men prisoners have ever been convicted in Guantanamo’s faux legal system.
Meanwhile, former prisoners who have been resettled in other countries still face enormous challenges.
For example, Hussein Al-Merfady, a Yemeni man who was detained at Guantanamo for over a decade and never charged with a crime, was transferred to Slovakia, a country he had never set foot in. Being in Slovakia with few contacts, much less friends, Al-Merfady stated that, “we thought we would be free when we left Guantánamo…Instead, we went from the small Guantánamo to here — a bigger Guantánamo.”
Detained at Guantanamo for 13 years, Lutfi bin Ali was transferred to Kazakhstan where he has expressed feeling isolated, saying “At least in Guántanamo there were people to talk to. Here I have nobody.”
Still others like Yemeni prisoner Mansour Adayfi was resettled in Serbia – struggling with surveillance, isolation and the stigma of being considered a terrorist.
Guilty until proven guilty
Since its opening in the context of the War on Terror, prisoners have had to prove their innocence, instead of the government having to prove their guilt. In fact, every legal structure that has existed at Guantanamo has only served to adjudicate the degree of prisoners’ guilt based on the perceived threat that they pose to the United States.
To this end, prisoners cleared for release are “transferred,” not freed, because they are still considered inherently and indefinitely guilty. Abolishing Guantanamo would mean disconnecting the men from a prison that conveys their guilt long after their detention has ended.
The abolitionist movement has articulated an understanding of root causes of violence, while at the same time, providing a robust platform for alternative strategies to eliminate prisons as a de facto response to social and political problems for example in the form of restorative justice that de-centers punishment.
Although the concept of abolition theoretically applies to Guantanamo, the government has constructed the prison and who it detains as so radically different, that it is rarely part of the conversation. That’s not a mistake. Since it opened, the US government has tried to frame the men detained at Guantanamo as criminal anomalies, inherently violent, hateful, and irredeemable.
While other forms of violence are attributed to a lack of social services or some other form of deprivation when it comes to domestic imprisonment, the US doesn’t explain why terrorists are violent other than the fact that they are evil.
The arguments used are often circular, following the flawed logic: terrorists are inherently evil and because they are evil, they commit evil acts that are rooted in evil. Even worse is the fact that any attempt to search for alternative explanations can be considered unpatriotic because it goes against the idea that “if terrorists are evil and irrational, then one cannot—and, indeed, should not know them.” If we can’t or shouldn’t know them, then how can they be included in calls for abolition?
A prison is a prison is a prison. If we’re serious about abolishing prisons in America, if we’re serious about creating lasting and meaningful alternatives to a carceral system built on retributive justice, the conversation must include Guantanamo. For so long, we’ve let our advocacy stop at the water’s edge, but after 19 years we need a different strategy.
President Biden previously expressed his desire to end the forever wars and to close Guantanamo Bay prison, calling it “an advertisement for creating terror.” While his administration has yet to announce a definitive plan, Secretary Austin’s written commitment and the inclusion of “closing Gitmo” on their February priority list is a great start.
The Biden administration can and should close Guantanamo as a stop-gap measure, but then we must carry the torch forward and abolish what this prison represents, once and for all.
Dr. Maha Hilal is an expert on institutionalized Islamophobia in the War on Terror. She is currently a co-director for Justice for Muslims Collective, an organizer with Witness Against Torture, and a council member of the School of the Americas Watch.