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Biden administration not taking 'concrete steps' to close Guantanamo, defence lawyers say

Lawyers say 'it's unconscionable' for Biden to not have a plan to provide adequate health services to detainees
There are currently 36 men being held at Guantanamo Bay, 20 of whom have been approved for transfer.
There are currently 36 men being held at Guantanamo Bay, 20 of whom have been approved for transfer (AFP/File photo)

Several defence lawyers have criticised the Biden administration for not doing enough to release the remaining detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison, responding to a US official who said the government is working "dilligently" to transfer out the detained population.

In a hearing, hosted by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, several US government officials spoke to the efforts being taken by the Biden administration to release the remaining detainees still held at Guantanamo and provide adequate care to them while they remain detained, while also working to shut down the prison facilities there.

"The US government has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo," said Thomas Hastings, interim permanent representative of the US to the Organisation of American States.

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"And to that end, the current administration engaged in a thorough review involving all relevant departments and agencies to develop an approach for responsibly reducing the detainee population and setting the conditions to close the facility."

The officials' speaking publicly regarding the administration's efforts on the issue of Guantanamo was notable, given that the Biden administration did not send anyone to testify during a Senate hearing on the prison held earlier this year. 

"The Department of State is diligently working to identify suitable transfer locations and negotiate that transfer with foreign governments. We expect to have additional transfers in the near future," Jeffrey Kovar, assistant legal adviser in the Department of State's Office of political and military affairs, said during the hearing.

Since coming into office, the Biden administration has released four detainees from the prison and appointed an official to oversee the remaining transfers out of Guantanamo.

Yet Wells Dixon, a lawyer for several detainees and senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that while he appreciated the renewed efforts from Biden, there have not been any strong actions taken.

"With great respect, a lot of what we heard today was not new," Dixon said. "What I didn't hear today, what I hoped to hear today, was the concrete steps that the United States government is going to take to increase the rate of transfers."

"We haven't heard anything about how the United States Government intends to end the military commission process or ultimately close [the prison]."

Health concerns for detainees

A growing concern for the aging population of the detention centre is the health of the detainees, and over the past few years, several detainees have petitioned for a mixed medical commission to come to the island and assess the overall medical treatment provided onsite.

Ammar al-Baluchi, who for years has been suffering from severe brain damage as a result of his treatment at CIA black sites, is currently requesting one of these commissions, and her lawyer told MEE earlier this month that his condition is so bad that he is not able to read or form complete thoughts.

A 2019 report by The Center for Victims of Torture and Physicians for Human Rights found that medical equipment and expertise available on-site were "increasingly insufficient to address detainees' health needs".

'The adequacy of medical care in Guantanamo is substandard'

- Walter Ruiz, defence attorney

Corry Jeb Kucik, chief medical officer at the US Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, noted in testimony in June this year that the only magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine that was transferred to the island, which is used for scanning the human body and providing images of a person's organs for diagnoses, has been out of service since November 2021.

Dixon said that there was an incident earlier this month where one of the detainees he is representing was hospitalised.

"They have no long-term plan of care for men like this and who are approved for transfer, and continue to be detained in ill health. I mean, it's unacceptable, it's unconscionable with the utmost respect to the state."

Earlier this year, Middle East Eye reported a Covid-19 outbreak in the prison, and several detainees had tested positive for the virus.

"The adequacy of medical care in Guantanamo is substandard," said Walter Ruiz, a defence attorney for Guantanamo detainees.

There are currently 36 men being held at Guantanamo Bay, 20 of whom have been approved for transfer, while five are in indefinite detention. Ten are awaiting trial and two have been convicted, including Majid Khan, who has finished his sentence and is in need of a country to be transferred to.

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