Guantanamo prison pre­pares to stay open for decades longer

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - NATION & WORLD - BY BEN FOX

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — A new din­ing hall for guards at the Guantanamo Bay de­ten­tion cen­ter has a shim­mer­ing view of the Caribbean and a lifes­pan of 20 years. Bar­racks sched­uled to start get­ting built next year are meant to last five decades. And the Pen­tagon has asked Congress to ap­prove money for a new su­per-max prison unit to be de­signed with the un­der­stand­ing that pris­on­ers will grow old and frail in cus­tody — some per­haps still with­out be­ing con­victed of a crime.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s or­der in Jan­uary to keep the Guantanamo jail open, and al­low the Pen­tagon to bring new pris­on­ers there, is prompt­ing mil­i­tary of­fi­cials to con­sider a fu­ture for the con­tro­ver­sial fa­cil­ity that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion sought to close. Of­fi­cials talked about the plans in an un­usu­ally frank man­ner as a small group of journalists toured the iso­lated base where 40 men are still held be­hind tall fences and coils of ra­zor wire on the south­east­ern coast of Cuba.

“We’ve got to plan for the long term,” Army Col. Stephen Gabav­ics, com­man­der of the guard force, told re­porters this week. “We ul­ti­mately have to plan for whether or not they are go­ing to be here for the rest of their lives.”

The Pen­tagon was in­vest­ing in up­grades at the Navy base un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, whose push to shut­ter the de­ten­tion cen­ter couldn’t over­come op­po­si­tion in Congress. But those projects, in­clud­ing the $150 mil­lion bar­racks, were funded with the un­der­stand­ing that they could be used by the per­son­nel of the Navy base that hosts the de­ten­tion cen­ter. Now they are viewed as part of a broader ef­fort to be able to op­er­ate the prison for

many years to come.

“Now my mis­sion is en­dur­ing,” said Adm. John Ring, com­man­der of the task force that runs the jail. “So I have all sorts of struc­tures that I have been ne­glect­ing or just get­ting by with that now I’ve got to re­place.”

The Pen­tagon wants at least $69 mil­lion to re­place Camp 7, the su­per-max unit that holds 15 men des­ig­nated as “high-value de­tainees” who were pre­vi­ously in CIA cus­tody. They in­clude five men fac­ing trial by mil­i­tary com­mis­sion at Guantanamo for plan­ning and aid­ing the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks on the U.S. The men could get the death penalty if con­victed, but the pro­ceed­ings have been bogged down in pre­trial pro­ceed­ings for years and any con­vic­tion would likely bring years of ap­peals.

Of­fi­cials say Camp 7 is in need of ma­jor re­pairs, with crack­ing walls and a sink­ing foun­da­tion, and it is not suit­able to hold men who will likely be in cus­tody for many years to come. The new unit, which would be known as Camp 8, would have cell doors wide enough for wheel­chairs and hospice beds and com­mu­nal ar­eas so el­derly pris­on­ers could help each other as they grow old.

The White House has en­dorsed the pro­posal, but it is not known whether Congress will ap­prove it.

“We have the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the de­tainees that we have here, re­gard­less of what the po­lit­i­cal fla­vor is out­side there,” Gabav­ics said. “We have the re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­vide for their safety, care and cus­tody so all that we ask is that we get the re­sources we need to be able do that.”

The 40 de­tainees left at Guantanamo in­clude five who were deemed el­i­gi­ble for trans­fer un­der Obama but couldn’t clear the bu­reau­cratic and diplo­matic hur­dles be­fore he left of­fice. Of the re­main­der, nine have been charged in the mil­i­tary com­mis­sion sys­tem and are in pro­ceed­ings at var­i­ous stages. The re­main­ing 26 have nei­ther been charged nor deemed el­i­gi­ble for trans­fer. They are be­ing held in in­def­i­nite de­ten­tion un­der what the U.S. as­serts are the in­ter­na­tional laws of war.

The mil­i­tary al­lowed journalists a brief visit this week in­side Camp 6, where most of the pris­on­ers are held, as the men milled about and con­ducted late-after­noon prayers.

At­tor­ney David Remes, who rep­re­sents four pris­on­ers, said they are bored and frus­trated. “Limbo has never been more lim­bo­like,” Remes said. “They are just wait­ing, wait­ing, wait­ing.”

The de­ten­tion cen­ter opened in Jan­uary 2002 un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush as a makeshift place to hold and in­ter­ro­gate peo­ple sus­pected of in­volve­ment with al-Qaida and the Tal­iban. Global out­rage erupted over the treat­ment of pris­on­ers, and the Supreme Court ul­ti­mately ruled that any­one held there was en­ti­tled to chal­lenge their de­ten­tion in Amer­i­can courts, elim­i­nat­ing one of the main ra­tio­nales for us­ing Guantanamo in the first place.

Bush even­tu­ally said the jail should close and re­leased more than 500 pris­on­ers. Obama said the fa­cil­ity was dam­ag­ing U.S. re­la­tions around the world and was a waste of money, cost­ing more than $400 mil­lion a year to op­er­ate, and or­dered it closed shortly upon tak­ing of­fice. But Congress blocked clo­sure and passed leg­is­la­tion that barred any of the men held there from be­ing trans­ferred to U.S. soil, even for crim­i­nal tri­als. His ad­min­is­tra­tion trans­ferred 242 pris­on­ers out of Guantanamo.

Trump has al­lowed only one prisoner to leave: a Saudi who was trans­ferred to his home­land to serve the rest of his term.

Will any ad­di­tional in­mates be ad­mit­ted? “We are not im­mi­nently ex­pect­ing any new guests, if you will,” Ring said.

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