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Why is Guantanamo Bay Still Open?

by Andrew Deen, published

Using Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp – or “Gitmo” – for the imprisonment of terror suspects has been disputed for years. The American government, the international press, human rights advocates, and others have held divergent viewpoints, giving military historians and criminal justice students a discussion topic for decades to come.

A Look Back

Guantanamo Bay, located about 400 miles from Miami, became a naval base in 1903 when the United States leased 45 acres of land in the southeast corner of Cuba. The property was originally used as a fueling station, and the U.S. presence was non-eventful until the late 1950s.

In 1958, the Castro regime captured 29 servicemen coming back from leave and held them hostage in the hills for 22 days. As of January 1, 1959, Cuban land surrounding the base was declared off-limits to U.S. servicemen and civilians.

The Cuban Missile Crisis came next, while President John F. Kennedy was in office, and diplomatic relations with Cuba continued to be strained. In 1964, the Cuban government cut off water and supply lines to Guantanamo Bay in retaliation for fines being levied on their fishermen who had entered Florida waters.

In 1991, the naval base became a holding site for Haitian and Cuban refugees. Guantanamo Bay remained in that role until 1997 before being converted into the detention facility we know today.

The War on Terror

On January 11, 2002, the first 20 detainees from the war in Afghanistan arrived at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, deemed to be “unlawful combatants” with no rights under the Geneva Conventions. Criminal justice scholars, human rights advocates, and members of the international community cried “foul” and the controversy began.

The detainee population soon swelled to 600 prisoners from 43 different countries, with the majority being Afghani, Saudi Arabian, Yemeni, and Pakistani citizens. Stories of suicide attempts and torture elicited demands from the International Red Cross and other organizations that these individuals be granted prisoner of war status.

In April 2004, graphic photos of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq were first revealed to the American public. This news set off a firestorm of questioning about the use of widespread torture as a United States military strategy.

Shortly thereafter, a precedent-setting case (Rasul v. Bush) was heard by the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that prisoners of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp had the right to counsel and could challenge their captivity by the United States.

In 2006, the Bush administration lost its bid to try detainees before military commissions. An additional hearing (Boudmediene v. Bush) in 2008, which challenged the legality of prisoner detention, received a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court in favor of the detainees’ right to habeas corpus.

One year later, President Obama ordered Guantanamo Bay closed. Today, in 2013, the facility remains open and operational while legal battles over prisoners’ rights continue.

Gitmo: By the Numbers

According to The Guantanamo Docket project conducted by The New York Times and National Public Radio (NPR):

  • Over 600 prisoners have been released, primarily to countries in the Middle East and Europe.
  • More than 160 individuals still remain in custody.

Additional data collected by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states:

  • More than 200 FBI agents have reported abusive treatment of Guantanamo prisoners.
  • As of September 2008, seven military prosecutors have either resigned or requested reassignment because they viewed Guantanamo’s military commissions as unfair.
  • Six prisoner suicides were reported, with the youngest being a 21-year-old who had been in custody since he was 16.
  • In 2011, the U.S. government spent $12 million in Guantanamo military commissions.

An Unclear Future

After the case of Boudmediene v. Bush in 2008, the Supreme Court handed off remaining petitions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Active legal review of Guantanamo Bay detainee rights and American criminal justice practices continues to this day.


Andrew Deen writes in the field of higher education. This article aims to shed light on a pressing issue in our criminal justice system and promotes the benefits of advanced study regarding a Online Criminal Justice Masters Degree.

Photo Credit: Deligodin Evgeny /

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