Posted by on November 22, 2013 in Blog

By Maha Sayed
Legal Fellow

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate laid the foundation necessary to finally bring an end to the indefinite detention of prisoners without charge or trial at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, revealing a notable shift in the Senate on the controversial issue. The Senate voted in support of critical provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2014 that would facilitate the transfer of detainees at Guantanamo Bay by easing restrictions that currently impede the transfer process. AAI and a coalition of civil and human rights organizations sent a letter to the Senate last week urging the Senators to support the Guantanamo Bay detainee transfer provisions in the NDAA.   

The new provisions result from a bipartisan effort by Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ). The bill simplifies the process of releasing detainees who have been determined not to pose a threat to the United States, and permits the transfer of detainees to the United States for detention, federal trials, or medical treatment. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) offered an amendment to strike the new provisions and largely reinforce the current onerous certification requirements to transfer detainees to foreign nations, ban any transfers to Yemen, and prohibit Pentagon funds from being used to transfer and try detainees within the United States. Ayotte’s amendment was defeated, 43-55, so the NDAA still provides a simplified and responsible transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo Bay.

In 2010, national security and intelligence agencies cleared more than half of the 164 detainees at Guantanamo for transfer to other nations – that is, the government determined that they can be released and serve no threat to the United States. However, only two of the 86 cleared detainees have been successfully transferred because current law unduly complicates the transferring process. The continued indefinite detention of individuals without charge is both untenable and detrimental to the rule of law and fundamental due process principles. It is therefore increasingly evident that the Senate NDAA provisions are essential to clarify and strengthen the Administration’s authority to transfer cleared detainees out of Guantanamo Bay within a flexible and responsible framework.

In addition to the profound legal and human rights implications, the cost for merely operating the military prison in Guantanamo Bay is especially shocking. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reported that operating costs for the prison amounts to $454 million annually, which equals roughly $2.7 million per inmate. In stark contrast, the government spends about $35,000 per year to keep an inmate detained in a high-security federal prison facility. No one has ever escaped from one of those high-security prisons, and the regular, civilian federal courts have tried over 500 terrorism cases since the September 11 attacks. The military commissions at Guantanamo Bay have resulted in less than 10 convictions – and some of those have been thrown out on appeal.

Because Guantanamo continues to cost U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars a year while obstructing the judicial process, it is imperative that Congress act swiftly and pragmatically on legislation that facilitates the transfer of cleared detainees that  leads to the eventual closure of Guantanamo.

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