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The future of Guantanamo Bay detention camp — and the 39 prisoners still there

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On this day 20 years ago, suspected terrorists rounded up after the September 11 attacks began arriving at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Two decades later, the debate continues over what to do with the U.S. military court and prison there. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer has made several trips to Guantanamo, and she's here to talk about this anniversary and the future of the prison.

Hi, Sacha.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How many people are still in prison at Guantanamo Bay?

PFEIFFER: Thirty-nine - that's down from nearly 800 over the years. Now, most of these men have never been charged. They're just being held indefinitely. And more than a third have been cleared for release but are still being held. In fact, just yesterday, for the first time, one of the so-called high-value detainees was declared safe to be let go after he spent 15 years there. The U.S. alleged he had close ties with al-Qaida but now say he's no longer a threat. But he could still remain locked up at Gitmo for some time. And his attorney, Wells Dixon, says that's just wrong.

WELLS DIXON: It's not enough simply to approve detainees for transfer. They actually have to leave the prison, and that isn't happening. And it's cruel to say to someone you shouldn't be here but then to not take the necessary steps to release them.

SHAPIRO: What's standing in the way of their being released?

PFEIFFER: Well, the U.S. has to find countries to take them. And in some cases, these men are from collapsed nations like Yemen, so it's complicated to find homes for them. But a bigger problem is that President Trump shut down the office that used to negotiate transfers of Guantanamo prisoners, and it's unclear if President Biden has restarted that process.

SHAPIRO: You say that these detainees are judged to be safe for release or not. How does the government make that judgment? How do they know whether it's dangerous to release someone?

PFEIFFER: That is a hard call. The government tries to measure how many released Gitmo prisoners later turn against the U.S., but estimates vary dramatically, and critics say those numbers are full of errors, plus misleading. For example, a released prisoner who gives an interview critical of the U.S. could be labeled as reengaging in terror. But, Ari, letting prisoners go does involve some level of risk. And as an example of that, even though released prisoners are subject to security measures like monitoring and travel bans, you may remember that when the Taliban took over Afghanistan last summer, at least two Taliban leaders were former Gitmo inmates.

SHAPIRO: What's the cost of holding these men? How much are American taxpayers paying?

PFEIFFER: Gitmo's prison and military court cost American taxpayers about $540 million a year. That's a big part of why many people want President Biden to close Guantanamo. Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch calls it a, quote, "blight on the U.S. reputation and moral authority worldwide." She points out that five of the prisoners still there are the 9/11 defendants and still haven't been tried.

LETTA TAYLER: And this isn't just denying due process to the suspects. It's depriving 9/11 survivors and the family members of 9/11 victims their right to justice. And that is a total affront to anyone who was harmed by or remembers 9/11.

PFEIFFER: And, Ari, the 9/11 cases have had lots of turnover of judges and lawyers, and holding the legal hearings in Cuba is extremely cumbersome. So some 9/11 families want these cases just to be settled rather than go to trial. They say a quick resolution would be having the defendants plead guilty in return for life in prison. Now, for the non-9/11 prisoners, the Biden administration has been quietly working to close Gitmo by clearing some of them for release. But the fall of Afghanistan has made that politically harder to know where to send these men.

SHAPIRO: And so if these remaining prisoners were to be released or the criminal case is somehow resolved, what would happen then? Would Guantanamo prison just shut down? And what would happen to the facilities of the base?

PFEIFFER: It's all speculative. There is a longtime naval base on Guantanamo that would almost certainly keep operating. But I asked Alka Pradhan, a lawyer for one of the 9/11 defendants, what might become of the courthouse and prison. And here's what she said.

ALKA PRADHAN: I think there will be a number of people who want to get rid of it and pave over it and forget the whole thing and pretend nothing ever happened. But I don't think that that will actually happen.

PFEIFFER: She thinks they're more likely to become a bunch of old buildings that fall into disuse, maybe eventually become a museum to document what the U.S. did there.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer, thank you.

PFEIFFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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