The Legacy of Guantanamo Bay

History of Guantanamo Bay

Cuban nationalists began pressing for independence from Spain in the mid-nineteenth century. Cuban guerrilla fighters initiated frequent skirmishes with the Spanish military between 1868 and 1878. Revolutionary activities picked up in the 1890s and Spain imposed martial law in 1896. International tensions came to a head when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. The US declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898. US troops quickly defeated Spain, and the two countries signed the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. The US retained a significant presence in Cuba following independence from Spain, but agreed to lessen its influence over the new nation in exchange for the right to build a US-controlled naval base in Guantanamo Bay under the terms of the 1903 Cuban-American Treaty signed by US President Theodore Roosevelt.

Used exclusively for naval operations until the 1990s, President George H. W. Bush housed over 34,000 Haitian refugees fleeing that nation's coup d'etat at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in 1991. Between 1994-1995, US President Bill Clinton housed over 55,000 Haitian and Cuban immigrants at the base.

The facilities at Guantanamo Bay have taken on a special significance since 9/11. The Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp was constructed in 2002 and houses individuals captured by the US military during the War on Terror. The first prisoner arrived at Guantanamo Bay on January 11, 2002. As of 2012, experts estimate that over 779 detainees have been held at the site. While approximately 600 have been released, over 170 remain imprisoned and nine detainees have died [PDF].

During his 2008 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama advocated for closure of the detention camp. Obama issued Executive Order 13492 on January 22, 2009, calling for closure of the detention facilities by January 22, 2010. That same day, Obama also issued Executive Order 13493, which called for alternative options for the detention camp.
Obama signed the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010 in October 2009, allowing for the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the US for prosecution. Congress resisted Obama's plan, and in November 2009, the US Senate voted down an amendment to the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act that would have prevented Guantanamo detainees accused of involvement in 9/11 from being tried in federal courts. Obama defended his stance that detainees charged with violating US criminal law should be tried in federal courts "whenever feasible."

The Obama administration missed its January 2010 deadline for the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Following the 2010 mid-term congressional election, Congress approved a defense spending bill which blocked Guantanamo detainees from being transferred to the US. In January 2011, the closure of Guantanamo was further delayed when President Obama signed the Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act of 2011, which barred the use of funds to transfer Guantanamo detainees into the US. Advocacy groups, such as the ACLU and Amnesty International, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have repeatedly called on the Obama administration to close the detention camp. President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to closing the camp several times, and most recently called for closure during the State of the Union address in January 2014. As of July 2014, however, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp remains open and the prisoners await transfer.

Hunger Strikes at Guantanamo Bay

Since the military prison at Guantanamo Bay was first opened in January 2002, hunger strikes have been a frequent device used by the detainees to protest the conditions of the detention center and their general detainment.

In 2005, one of many detainee hunger strikes produced a litigation battle over how to handle the rapidly growing group of hunger striking detainees, exemplifying the on-going back and forth that would continue into the present. In that case, a group of detainees began a hunger strike in June to protest their detentions. The strike continued into 2006 and many other detainees joined the strike. Lawyers representing the detainees petitioned for government intervention and fought with military officials over the actual number of hunger strikers, as well as the use of feeding tubes and other forced feeding methods. The attorneys disagreed with military officials over the physical condition of the detainees and requested judicial oversight of the strike. The lawyers continued to fight with military officials, seeking more frequent contact with their clients and accusing the officials of using feeding tubes as a means of punishment, while some prisoners requested that the courts permit them to starve to death.

The legal battle over treatment of those detainees on hunger strikes continued into 2006, as the number of detainees actively striking fluctuated, often times from week to week according to reports from US officials. The shrinking of the number was in large part due to various approaches to force-feeding used on the striking detainees. In June 2006, new US military medical guidelines explicitly permitted force-feeding of detainees and military officials continued to openly admit utilizing such practices. While some see this as a necessary practice, it was, and continues to be, criticized by medical professionals around the world as 'unethical.'

Hunger strikes continue to occur, and several requests for injunctive and other relief have been filed to challenge force-feeding practices. More than half the detainees initiated a hunger strike in 2013 to protest conditions and indefinite detentions. In February 2014, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied such a request in one situation. In March 2014, a detainee filed a lawsuit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the force-feeding procedures. In May, however, a federal judge ordered a temporary suspension to force-feeding for one prisoner.

Guantanamo Bay Prisoner Releases

Six hundred and twenty-one detainees have been transferred from Guantanamo Bay since 2002. NPR and The New York Times have identified at least a dozen of the 621 whom have resumed terrorist activities. Of that dozen, two became leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The news outlets acquired a large cache of secret documents pertaining to Guantanamo Bay from the Wikileaks windfall. They report that detainees have been transferred to 52 countries. Some transferees are later released by the receiving nation. Afghanistan has received the most 199 transfers, the most of any nation.

The first transfer was to the United States and occurred in 2002. The transferee, Yaser Esam Hamdi, was the subject of the 2004 Supreme Court case Hamdi v. Rumsfeld. Hamdi is a US citizen who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and treated as an enemy combatant. After US authorities found out Hamdi was an American citizen, they transferred him to a naval brig in Norfolk, Virginia. Hamdi's father challenged the detainment of his son without due process. Eight justices held that a US citizen cannot be held indefinitely without due process. Justice O'Connor's plurality opinion found that the government must charge detainees and give them a hearing. The plurality did not extend the requirements any further in regards to ongoing military conflicts. Hamdi was deported to Saudi Arabia following the Court's ruling.

The Combatant Status Review Tribunal [PDF] was a result of the Court's plurality opinion in Hamdi. In 2008 the Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that even though Guantanamo Bay is sovereign territory of Cuba, the fact that the US maintains jurisdiction over the territory entitles all detainees to habeas corpus, regardless of their citizenship. The release of Guantanamo Bay detainees remains highly controversial, as exemplified by the May 2014 exchange of several Guantanamo Bay detainees for US prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl.


08/20/2014: Ex-Guantanamo detainee appealed conviction

07/03/2014: Guantanamo Bay detainees filed motion for religious prayer

06/10/2014: Federal appeals court dismissed Guantanamo detainee lawsuit

06/02/2014: Pentagon approved war crimes trial for al Qaeda leader

05/31/2014: Final known US prisoner of war released in exchange for Guantanamo detainees

05/22/2014: US judge allowed force feeding of Guantanamo prisoner to continue

04/28/2014: Guantanamo prosecutor fought release of classified information to defense

04/07/2014: HRW urged US to expedite the return of cleared Guantanamo detainees

03/20/2014: Uruguay president agreed to take five Guantanamo prisoners

02/25/2014: UK police arrested former Guantanamo detainee on Syria terrorism charges


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