While President Trump has quickly developed a more violent record than Obama on drone warfare, immigration and other policy areas, Trump has thus far not embraced Guantánamo and made it his own the way that Obama did in 2009.
The 41 prisoners who remained at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp when Obama left office continue to be the only prisoners in the camp, and the arbitrary regime continues almost entirely as it did under Obama. Trump’s odd tweets about Guantánamo, such as his tweet about the alleged recidivism rate of former prisoners, are about as meaningful and effective as his tweets about covfefe and the country needing to “heel.”
Many of the 197 men released from Guantánamo by the Obama administration continue to suffer the repercussions of their imprisonment every day. More than two–thirds of releases under Obama were of men resettled in third countries. Most were effectively rendered refugees who could not return to their country of origin, either due to the safety risk that resulted from their association with Guantánamo or due to the United States’ foreign policy of war and hostility in states such as Yemen and Syria.
The problems for prisoners transferred to third countries where they had no friends, family, job or connections, and often could not speak the local language, started almost immediately. Coupled with intrusive surveillance and restrictions, freedom remained elusive.
Three prisoners who were resettled in Slovakia in 2010 went on a hunger strike when they found themselves detained in an immigration detention center whose conditions they described as being “worse” than Guantánamo. This drastic action, and publicity via rights’ organizations in the country, enabled the men to negotiate better terms with the Slovak government seven months after they entered the country.
Elsewhere, the cruel and arbitrary system of prisoner releases has seen a Syrian father and son separated since 2009, when the son, who arrived at Guantánamo aged 17, was resettled in Portugal and the father was resettled in Cape Verde a year later. Although free men, the two have never had the opportunity to meet since.
The situation has not gotten any better since Obama left office. In January 2016, two Yemeni prisoners were transferred to Ghana, which agreed to settle the men for a period of two years. The move was immediately opposed, with church groups and the political opposition calling it a dangerous move, even though the two men had been cleared for release in 2009 and had never been charged.
The men would become a political football. In a lawsuit brought by two citizens in June 2017 the Supreme Court of Ghana ruled that the transfer was unconstitutional as the former government, deposed in December 2016 elections, had acted without consulting parliament. Parliament was given a three-month period to decide whether the men could stay.
The men — who were already subject to strict limitations required by the US on their freedom, preventing them from working and freely meeting other people — were now back in the precarious situation they were in at Guantánamo: if expelled, they could not return to Yemen due to the situation there, and the US would not take them. They had nowhere to go and found themselves hostages once more to the political whims of others. The situation was temporarily resolved when the Ghanaian parliament agreed to let them remain until the end of the two-year period — January 2018.
The transfer of many prisoners to third states was linked to trade and/or aid deals. The ex-president of Uruguay — who negotiated the transfer of six former prisoners, who are refugees — admitted the men had been traded for oranges. Almost three years after their 2014 release, their situation remains precarious and their lives are lived under an intrusive media microscope with intense scrutiny of their private lives.
Having initially agreed to provide housing and a stipend to the men for two years, at the end of that period, in late 2016, the Uruguayan government agreed to extend this, at a lower rate, to February 2018. In the meantime, the men are finding it difficult to access permanent work allowing them to become financially independent — a situation not helped by the stigma of having been in Guantánamo.
The case of one of the former prisoners, Syrian refugee Jihad Dhiab has been particularly sensitive. He has attempted to leave Uruguay on a number of occasions, most recently for Turkey, where his refugee family lives, via Morocco. In 2016, he went on a prolonged hunger strike until the Uruguayan government agreed to find another country to resettle him with his family. A year on, no progress has been made on this plan. His life is further restricted by close media monitoring of his every move.
Some prisoners were refugees even before they arrived at Guantánamo, such as the ethnic Uighurs from China. In 2009, four of the 21 Uighurs at Guantánamo were transferred to Bermuda. The resettlement was controversial and eight years on, problems and restrictions remain.
Still pursued by China, the men and their families are effectively stateless and cannot travel overseas. For one of the men, whose son has an illness local doctors are unable to diagnose, foreign treatment is the only option, but this can only happen if the British government (as Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory) agrees to issue them with passports. Applications have been made for naturalization.
The situation has not necessarily been any easier or less precarious for those who are returned to their own countries. Former Canadian prisoner Omar Khadr has been back in the media spotlight following his settlement and apology from the Canadian government for its abuse of his rights.
He has also been back in court in Canada for two issues directly related to his conviction in a secret plea deal before the Guantánamo military commission in 2010. He was the first prisoner tried under Obama’s new military commission regime and the only person since World War II tried as an adult for war crimes allegedly committed as a minor. Khadr did not have a fair trial.
Today, he is still fighting the bail conditions that impede his ability to live his life fully, as well as the enforcement of a US judgment ordering him to pay damages in excess of $130 million to the wife of the man he is alleged to have murdered and a US soldier he is alleged to have wounded, in a case based on the very same torture evidence used at his tribunal.
In each of these cases (and many others), prisoners — almost all released without charge or trial — are unable to move on with their lives. The conditions of their release are blocks on their freedom. Restrictions on basic rights, such as freedom of movement and association, coupled in many cases with poverty and isolation, make it almost impossible to resume the semblance of a normal life. As survivors of torture, few are offered adequate rehabilitation for their physical and psychological scars. Essentially, their human rights continue to be violated.
Over the past year, under both Obama and Trump, there have been many political claims about increased recidivism among former prisoners, most often without substantiation. Prisoners are increasingly linked tenuously to terrorist attacks. Current and former prisoners remain convenient scapegoats for various purposes.
Although Trump has not made any concerted efforts to expand Guantánamo, he has done nothing apparent to reduce or close the facility either, making that unlikely as well. Nonetheless, beyond Guantánamo, for many former prisoners, the experiment is not over and the walls remain intact.