by Phil Pasquini, first published by Nunzeink
In what has unfortunately become an annual event, activists today from Witness Against Torture and the National Religious Campaign Witness Against Torture held a Close Guantánamo vigil outside the White House marking the 21st anniversary of the extrajudicial prison’s opening at the U.S. Naval Base, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Since it was first opened by the Bush administration on January 11, 2002, the facility has seen approximately 779 detainees pass through, most of whom were never charged with or convicted of a crime. Of that total, nine detainees died while in custody with seven deaths reported as “suicides” while only two were attributed to natural causes. None of those who died was ever charged or convicted of a crime. Presently, there are 35 prisoners who remain there, 20 of whom have been cleared for release but continue to be detained.
Beyond the terrible human tragedy and moral costs of being detained without charges ever being filed is the asymmetrical cost of operating the prison that has been reported to be $540 million per year or $15.4 million dollars for each of the remaining detainees. For some perspective, the annual cost per prisoner is more than 9.6 times that of what an average American worker will earn during a 20-year working career.
Last year the Biden administration approved five detainees for release in its slower than molasses speed of emptying the facility. In all of 2022, only one detainee, Saifullah Paracha, a 75-year-old “forever prisoner” was released after having been detained there since 2003 on suspicion of having links to al-Qaeda. Arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, Paracha spent 18 years in detention while never being charged with a crime.
Paracha’s son Uzair was tried and convicted in 2005 for providing support to al-Qaeda, receiving a 30-year sentence until a federal judge in 2018 voided his conviction in what the judge characterized as a “manifest injustice” based on new evidence debunking the witness statements used to convict him.
At today’s protest, 35 participants dressed in orange jumpsuits with black hoods assembled in Lafayette Park where they heard from, Herb Geraghty, organizer for Witness Against Torture, in his opening remarks characterizing the prison as “Guantánamo represents the worst of this country’s xenophobia. Its continued existence as an institution threatens to render meaningless Americans proclaimed commitment to human rights, the rule of law and basic ideas of fairness.” He called upon President Biden to live up to his promise to close Guantánamo.
Dr. Maha Hilal, an expert on institutionalized Islamophobia and co-director of Justice for Muslims Collective, referred to Guantánamo as “one of the earliest relics of the War on Terror” and stated that its existence “…has institutionalized Islamophobia” in a “specific strategy “that in turn has been used to “…demonize, criminalize and to justify state violence against Muslims. And twenty-one years later and the fourth administration later we still have the problem of Guantánamo.”
James Yee, who served as U.S. Army prison chaplain to detainees at Guantánamo, spoke eloquently from his own personal experience. Due to his objections to the abuse and torture of the prisoners, Captain Yee, a West Point graduate was arrested and held in solitary confinement for 76 days while being falsely accused of aiding the “terrorist enemy.” After an extensive investigation, all charges against him were dropped.
Lee spoke of how Amnesty International has described Guantánamo “as the Gulag of our time” while the American Red Cross has described the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo as “tantamount to torture” while major newspaper articles refer to Guantánamo as a “legal black hole.”
Lee read aloud the names in memory of the nine prisoners who died in Guantánamo and followed by calling on all nations and people who fly flags around the world to fly them at half-staff in memory of those nine who died while imprisoned there. This was followed by the reading of the names of all 35 remaining prisoners with each participant holding their name aloft.
The protest was closed by a prayer from Imam Saffet A. Catovic, who among his many other affiliations, is an environmental organizer and activist as well as co-founder and chair of the Green Muslims of New Jersey. In his prayer Imam Catovic remarked on how humankind is “…made in the image of God and are the children of God and as such are entitled to dignity and respect.” He further called for justice to be done here in America and throughout the world while referring to Guantánamo by saying “…this stain on the conscious on humanity. This act of horror and criminality [must] come to an end with the closing of Guantánamo.”
Afterward a small group dressed in orange jump suits and black hoods marched to the Washington Post headquarters building to deliver a message to the editor and to inquire why the publication hadn’t covered this unfortunate anniversary without end.
On attempting to deliver their message the group was met by security who refused to accept the information they wanted to deliver and politely asked them to step back on the sidewalk and off their private property.
Evidently, the publication’s masthead motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” has not been conveyed to the security detail guarding the building although several people exiting the building did take photographs of those assembled.