Written by Ken Gude
President Barack Obama surprised many by calling for the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be closed this year in his State of the Union address. While a renewed emphasis on closing Guantanamo came from the White House a year ago, growing awareness of its absurd operating cost and Americans’ shifting attitudes have created new momentum behind the effort, which had stalled in the face of congressional opposition. Much work remains to be done, however, to achieve this new ambitious goal, not least of which is overcoming restrictions imposed by Congress that put limits on moving detainees into the United States.
It is important to remember that the theme of this State of the Union was executive action; the president has the authority to dramatically reduce the Guantanamo population without congressional approval. While there are specific challenges to overcome in order to close the prison, it is clear that a great deal of progress can be made with just a few steps. In turn, the task of closing Guantanamo then becomes much more manageable.
With this new call for the prison’s closure, the president delivered a shot in the arm to those both in Congress and outside government who have been working tirelessly for more than a decade to close Guantanamo. It can happen, and here’s how.
Current Guantanamo detainee population
There are currently 155 detainees at Guantanamo. The Obama administration’s Detainee Review Task Force evaluated the Guantanamo population from 2009 through 2010 and sorted them into three categories: detainees who can be transferred out of U.S. custody either to their native country or to other countries; detainees who are designated for prosecution either in federal criminal court or by military commissions; and detainees who will remain in U.S. custody but do not face prosecution in either forum. Of the population that remains at Guantanamo, 77 are slated for transfer, 33 for prosecution, and 45 for continued detention.
The Guantanamo Yemenis
Of the current Guantanamo population, a majority—88—are Yemenis, by far the largest remaining national group. Of those 88, 55 have been designated for transfer—a group that on its own comprises more than one-third of the total Guantanamo population. So many Yemeni detainees are still there because legitimate concerns about security and prison conditions in Yemen made transferring custody difficult if not impossible for years, to say nothing of the multiple ongoing conflicts that are plaguing that nation. A new government in Yemen, however, has shown itself to be a more constructive partner with the United States, and President Obama has consequently lifted the moratorium on transferring Guantanamo detainees back to Yemen.
In addition, the U.N. Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute is leading an international effort to establish an extremist rehabilitation program in Yemen, designed primarily to address militancy and radicalization in the domestic Yemeni context. The United States is assisting in that effort, and this rehabilitation center could be used to facilitate the repatriation of this group of Yemeni detainees. A solution has now appeared on the horizon for the 55 Yemenis that are designated for transfer.
Transferring just this one group would bring the total Guantanamo population down to 100 and the transfer category down to 22.
The end of the war in Afghanistan
In his State of the Union address, President Obama linked closing Guantanamo to the end of the war in Afghanistan in a way that foreshadows more action. There are 17 remaining Afghan detainees at Guantanamo: 3 have been slated for prosecution, 4 have been designated for transfer, and 10 are held in continued military detention. Former Defense Department General Counsel and now Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said last year that “in general, the military’s authority to detain ends with the cessation of active hostilities.”
The Obama administration appears to be following Secretary Johnson’s premise; for more than a year, the United States has been negotiating the potential release of five top Taliban officials held at Guantanamo. Those five detainees are all in the continued-detention category. Eleven of the remaining 12 are relatively low-level figures who certainly pose no greater risk than the 5 high-ranking Taliban detainees already under consideration for release. Three have been slated for prosecution, though no progress has been made on any of their cases; four for transfer; and four remain in the continued-detention category. The only exception is Muhammad Rahim al Afghani, a high-value Al Qaeda detainee who was a close associate of Osama bin Laden and holds the distinction of being the last person transferred to Guantanamo in 2008.
Regardless of the outcome of the tense negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the security agreement that would define U.S. troop presence beyond 2014, major U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan will end this year. The Obama administration appears ready to use that opportunity to help reduce the Guantanamo population by repatriating at least 16 of the 17 remaining Afghans.
Assuming the previously mentioned transfer of Yemenis, a running tally brings the total population down to 84, with 30 slated for prosecution, 18 for transfer, and 36 held in continued detention.
Current pace of transfers is sufficient to meet end-of-year goal
If the Yemenis and Afghans slated for transfer are successfully repatriated, it would leave only 18 in the group of detainees designated for transfer out of U.S. custody. Just six months ago, moving even that limited number by the end of the year would have seemed impossible. However, the president appointed a new State Department special envoy, Cliff Sloan, to facilitate such transfers, and the results have been impressive. Just since November 2013, nine former Guantanamo detainees from the group designated for transfer have been repatriated or sent to third countries. And those transfers that occurred before Congress lifted the restrictions that previously made the process of transferring Guantanamo detainees to their native or third countries extremely difficult. With nine detainees transferred in three months and now lower barriers to this effort, getting those 18 who remain at Guantanamo transferred out of U.S. custody is entirely possible in the 11 months remaining in 2014.
Continuing the tally, that would bring the total population down to 66, with 30 slated for prosecution and 36 in continued detention.
Photo Credit: Darwinek
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