While the same could, sadly, be said of many subjects, the President knows nothing about Guantánamo Bay. He has said that “There should be no further releases from Gitmo.” His tweet adds: “These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield.”
What Trump doesn’t appear to understand is that most Gitmo prisoners can’t go “back to the battlefield” – because they were never there in the first place. In 2002, the last Republican administration said that those held at Guantánamo were “the worst of the worst,” but thus far the vast majority of the prisoners held there have been cleared. Most of the men there were never the worst of anything.
The 59 prisoners who remain at Gitmo today have never faced a fair trial. Many – like more than 700 before them – are held on the basis of a mix of bogus statements, made under torture or coercion. Unfortunately, Trump – a self-proclaimed patriot – appears happy with this most un-American state of affairs.
Those who Trump would keep forever without trial, but for whom my charity Reprieve will continue to advocate, including a former Pakistani taxi driver who was mistaken for a terrorist called Hassan Gul, and taken to a secret prison for “unauthorised” torture over a year. And a young man from Yemen who had travelled far from home in search of work, and then got caught up in the chaotic aftermath of 9/11. The US military was offering life-changing sums of bounty money to Afghans and to Pakistanis if they turned over Arab men.
And on top of leaving people to rot in Gitmo without trial, President Trump promised to bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”. Trump doesn’t “think it’s tough enough.” Trump seems to be fairly ill-informed about torture techniques as well: the main conclusion of the US Senate’s 2014 probe into Bush-era torture was that it “was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.”
From my own work with colleagues at Reprieve, I know that the terrible abuses that prisoners at Gitmo were put through – from beatings and sexual assault to solitary confinement, stripping, and force-feeding – resulted in bogus statements from people of little significance, leading only to false trails.
Trump’s shameful bluster should turn the stomach of any American who cares about the values of his or her country. He says he is going to “load [Guantanamo] up with bad dudes” – and certainly end the process of releasing people who have spent 15 years there, and who just want to go home to their families.
The horrific ways in which Guantánamo’s prisoners have been repeatedly tortured makes it surprising there aren’t more who hold a mighty grudge. In my experience, the overwhelming majority just want to return home, rebuild their lives and forget the terrible nightmare of the last decade and more.
Reprieve’s work was unexpectedly difficult under eight years of Obama, who didn’t do nearly as much as he could have to close Guantánamo. However, the outgoing president was dead right to say that Gitmo is a blot on the US. As long ago as 2004, an intelligence agent opined that for every detainee we hold at Guantanamo, we have provoked 10 people to want to do us harm. Today, the same expert would no doubt revise this estimate up to hundreds. Osama bin Laden estimated that he had 100 followers in 2001. Look at the mess we are in now.
It is time to make America great again, and to apply such Trump parlance where it rightly belongs. That is emphatically not torture, rendition, detention without trial and assassination. It is respect for human rights, and US values like due process and the rule of law.