By BEN FOX, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – Supporters of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center were optimistic when President Joe Biden took office. And they were relieved this summer after the United States released a prisoner for the first time in years. Many are now more and more impatient.

In the months since this release, there has been little sign of progress in closing the infamous offshore prison at the US base in Cuba. This has led to heightened skepticism about Biden’s approach as the administration wraps up its first year and the detention center reaches a milestone on Tuesday – the 20th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners.

“President Biden has declared his intention to close Guantanamo as a policy, but has not taken substantial steps towards the closure,” said Wells Dixon, an attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, who plays has long played a leading role in challenging indefinite confinement without charge at the grassroots.

“There is a lot of impatience and a lot of frustration among defenders and people who have watched this,” said Daphne Eviatar, director of the security program with human rights at Amnesty International USA.

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Without a more concerted effort, those who want the center to shut down fear a repeat of what happened under President Barack Obama. Obama made the Guantanamo closure a signature issue from his early days in power, but only succeeded in reducing it in the face of political opposition in Congress.

“We cannot forget what this country did 20 years ago and continues to do today,” Eviatar said. “This administration certainly has a lot to do, but it is a blatant violation of human rights.”

There are 39 prisoners left. This is the lowest number since the early days of the detention center, when the first groups, suspected of having some connection with al-Qaida or the Taliban, arrived on flights from Afghanistan – hooded, chained and dressed in orange overalls – at what was then a sleepy American outpost on Cuba’s southeast coast.

Guantanamo has become the center of international outrage over the mistreatment and torture of prisoners and the US insistence that they could detain men indefinitely without charge for the duration of a war against al-Qaida which apparently has no end. Critics grew to include Michael Lehnert, a now retired Marine Corps major general who was tasked with opening the detention center but came to believe that holding mostly low-level fighters without charge was against the rules. American values ​​and interests.

“To me, the existence of Guantanamo is anathema to all that we stand for, and it must be closed for that reason,” Lehnert said.

At its peak in 2003, the detention center held nearly 680 prisoners. President George W. Bush released over 500, and Obama released 197 before the time limit for his population reduction efforts ran out.

President Donald Trump rescinded Obama’s order to shut down Guantanamo, but largely ignored the location. He pledged in his first campaign to “fill it with bad guys” but never sent anyone there and said the annual cost of running the detention center was “crazy” at around $ 13 million. dollars per prisoner.

Of the remaining prisoners, 10 are on trial by a military commission in proceedings that have stalled for years. Among them is Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Two more at Guantanamo have been convicted and one of them, former Maryland resident Majid Khan, is expected to serve his sentence next month.

The remaining 27 include 13 who were allowed to be released, including eight under Biden who could now be returned to their home countries or resettled elsewhere. Two dozen have not been cleared and have never been charged, and probably never will, a statute some Republicans continue to defend, including in a Senate hearing last month.

“We are not fighting a crime. We are fighting a war. I don’t want to torture anyone. I want to give them due process consistent with being at war and, if necessary, I want to keep them for as long as it takes to ensure our safety or we think they are no longer a threat ”, a said the senator from South Carolina. Lindsey Graham.

A senior official in the Biden administration, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal politics, said the National Security Council was “actively” working with the defense, state and government departments. Justice and other agencies to reduce the population within restrictions imposed by Congress. The restrictions include bans on returning prisoners to certain countries, including Yemen and Somalia, or sending prisoners to the United States, even for additional jail time.

The official said the administration is committed to shutting down the detention center, an effort it “kicked off” after four years of inaction under Trump.

One sign of progress is the Eight approved for release through a review process created under Obama. Under Trump, only one detainee was cleared and the only release was a Saudi returned to his homeland under a previous military commission plea deal.

Critics want the Biden administration to work on repatriating or resettling inmates who have been cleared and re-establishing a State Department unit dedicated to the effort that was eliminated under Trump.

“Until I see visible signs that the administration is going to do something, I am not encouraged,” said Lehnert, the retired Marine Corps general. “If there is anyone in charge of shutting down Guantanamo, I haven’t spoken to anyone who knows who they are. “

Lawyers argue that the administration could resolve the fate of others by transferring cases from the military commission to federal court and freeing the others.

Biden’s low-profile approach could be a smart strategy given the political opposition Obama has faced, argues Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who, along with his students, has represented 14 Guantanamo prisoners since. 2005.

“President Biden appears to have learned from Obama’s faux pas, transferring one prisoner and clearing several without being too loud about it and painting a target on his own back,” Kassem said. “However, the administration must step up the pace because, at the rate of one inmate per year, it will not be close to closing the prison.

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