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24 Senators Send Letter To President Biden Urging Him To Close Guantánamo – OpEd

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In the long struggle to try to secure the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, there has rarely been adequate support from lawmakers, so it was extremely reassuring, on April 16, to see that 24 Democratic Senators — almost half of the Democrats in the Senate — have written a letter to President Biden urging him to close the prison once and for all.

Led by Senate Majority Whip and Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, and including Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the 24 Senators not only urged President Biden to close the prison, but also provided detailed proposals for how that can be achieved.

These proposals involve re-establishing the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure at the State Department, which we discussed in an article just last week, and also appointing a “senior White House official” to be “accountable for the closure process.”

Regarding the 40 men still held, the Senators point out that, “Once re-appointed, the Envoy should immediately begin the work of repatriating or resettling the six men who are already cleared for transfer, as well as preparing for the transfer of any remaining detainees who will not be charged with crimes.”

We discussed the six men approved for release last week, calling for them to be granted their freedom as swiftly as possible, but we are delighted to see that the Senators have also insisted that anyone who is not going to be charged with a crime must also be freed, as I also discussed in a previous article.

This is particularly significant for the 22 men in this category, who have long been described by the media with shocking accuracy as “forever prisoners,” and it is reassuring that the Senators also recognize that, “If the Justice Department were not to oppose habeas petitions in appropriate cases, those detainees could be transferred more easily pursuant to court orders.”

In addition, the Senators are to be commended for seeking to break the deadlock regarding the men facing trials in the broken military commission trial system — currently ten of those still held — by urging President Biden “to direct the Justice Department to explore pursuing plea agreements remotely, via video conference, with detainees for whom there are federal charges available and against whom the Department has sufficient untainted evidence to bring such charges.”

The full letter is posted below, and I hope that you have time to read it, and that you’ll share it widely if you appreciate this very important position taken by the Senators.

Letter to President Biden from 24 Senators, Urging Him to Close the Prison at Guantánamo Bay

United States Senate

April 16, 2021

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Biden:

We applaud your pledge to “put universal rights and strengthening democracy at the center of our efforts to meet the challenges of the 21st century.” One critical step toward doing so is finally closing the detention facility at U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. As a symbol of lawlessness and human rights abuses, the detention facility continues to harm U.S. national security by serving as a propaganda tool for America’s enemies and continues to hinder counterterrorism efforts and cooperation with allies.

The detention facility was established in 2002 to detain individuals suspected of involvement in the terrorist attacks on our country on 9/11. For nearly two decades, the offshore prison has damaged America’s reputation, fueled anti-Muslim bigotry, and weakened the United States’ ability to counterterrorism and fight for human rights and the rule of law around the world. In addition to the $540 million in wasted taxpayer dollars each year to maintain and operate the facility, the prison also comes at the price of justice for the victims of 9/11 and their families, who are still waiting for trials to begin.

We welcome the recent announcement that the White House is leading an interagency review on closing the prison. Only 40 men remain in detention at Guantánamo — all of them aging and many with complex health problems. Six of those men have been approved for transfer by the executive branch, in some cases for over a decade. After years of indefinite detention without charge or trial; a history of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and multiple attempts at a thoroughly failed and discredited military commission process, it is past time to close Guantánamo’s detention facility and end indefinite detention.

With sufficient political will and swift action, your administration can finish the job that Presidents George W. Bush and Obama began.

Strong and effective leadership from the White House will be necessary. A senior White House official should be accountable for the closure process, including ensuring interagency cooperation and resolving any disputes that may arise. Because indefinite detention at Guantánamo is at its core a human rights problem — one that demands solutions rooted in diplomacy and that uphold U.S. human rights and humanitarian law obligations — the National Security Council’s human rights directorate should play a leading role in both the review you have ordered as well as throughout the closure process.

Also critical is immediately re-establishing the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure at the State Department, and rebuilding appropriate closure infrastructure at the Defense Department. Diplomacy is essential to the closure process, which is why President Obama established the Envoy’s office. The State Department must lead in identifying transfer countries and negotiating transfer agreements, but President Trump discarded that capacity when he eliminated the Envoy’s position. Once re-appointed, the Envoy should immediately begin the work of repatriating or resettling the six men who are already cleared for transfer, as well as preparing for the transfer of any remaining detainees who will not be charged with crimes.

We also urge you to make use of our federal court system in ways that are consistent with current law but that have been underutilized by previous administrations. For example, detainees’ habeas cases provide an opportunity to expedite foreign transfers. If the Justice Department were not to oppose habeas petitions in appropriate cases, those detainees could be transferred more easily pursuant to court orders.

Article III courts can also be utilized more directly at Guantánamo itself. Given the current statutory prohibition on transfers to the United States, we urge you to direct the Justice Department to explore pursuing plea agreements remotely, via video conference, with detainees for whom there are federal charges available and against whom the Department has sufficient untainted evidence to bring such charges. In the event that a detainee is sentenced to a period of incarceration beyond time already served at Guantánamo, your administration could negotiate with foreign governments to allow the remaining time to be completed in the transfer country subject to the terms of the plea agreement.

Finally, in service of both closing the Guantánamo detention facility and upholding the United States’ human rights obligations, we urge you to reverse erroneous and troubling legal positions taken by the Trump Administration regarding the application of relevant international and domestic legal protections to Guantánamo, including in particular the position that the Constitution’s Due Process Clause does not apply to the men detained there.

After the unprecedented damage of the last four years to America’s standing in the world, closing the Guantánamo detention facility is more important than ever for sending a message about what we stand for as a nation. We urge you to act swiftly to ensure that message is loud and clear.

Sincerely,

RICHARD J. DURBIN
United States Senator
PATRICK LEAHY
United States Senator
DIANNE FEINSTEIN
United States Senator
PATTY MURRAY
United States Senator
SHELDON WHITEHOUSE
United States Senator
ELIZABETH WARREN
United States Senator
KRISTEN GILLIBRAND
United States Senator
MAZIE K. HIRONO
United States Senator
EDWARD J. MARKEY
United States Senator
BERNARD SANDERS
United States Senator
BRIAN SCHATZ
United States Senator
ALEX PADILLA
United States Senator
GARY C. PETERS
United States Senator
RON WYDEN
United States Senator
CHRIS VAN HOLLEN
United States Senator
BENJAMIN L. CARDIN
United States Senator
CORY A. BOOKER
United States Senator
CHRISTOPHER A. COONS
United States Senator
JEFFREY A. MERKLEY
United States Senator
MARTIN HEINRICH
United States Senator
BEN RAY LUJAN
United States Senator
RICHARD BLUMENTHAL
United States Senator
AMY KLOBUCHAR
United States Senator
TINA SMITH
United States Senator

I wrote the above article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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