No end in sight for world’s toughest prison

Protesters dressed in Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits march in Washington DC © Getty Images

This week Guantanamo Bay, America’s most controversial detention camp, turns ten years old. Despite a mounting campaign to close it down, it shows no sign of disappearing yet.

Rows of chained prisoners, blindfolded and wearing orange jumpsuits: these are the images we associate with the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.

The high-security facility, located at a US Naval base on the island of Cuba, was opened by George Bush in 2001 to hold suspected anti-American terrorists while they awaited trial. Since then it has been at the centre of stories of torture and mistreatment, with accounts of prisoners being waterboarded and electrocuted by US Army and even MI6 officers.

Information gathered at the camp apparently helped the mission to find Osama bin Laden, but the methods used to extract such information have come under serious attack from human rights lobbyists.

US President Barack Obama promised to close the controversial facility when he was inaugurated in 2009. But now, more than two years later, it still holds 171 prisoners. A dozen of them have been there ever since the prison camp opened a decade ago.

Shaker Aamer, the last British inmate, has been inside since the beginning. David Cameron spoke recently about the fight for his release, but Aamer believes he will never be set free because of what he claims to have seen and undergone while in the custody of the US military: namely the illegal torture and even murder of detainees.

Friends say his health is in decline due to the punishing regime imposed upon him, but how long he will suffer without being brought to trial remains a mystery.

Of the 800 who have come through the gates at Guantanamo, the vast majority have never been tried and only two have been convicted. Many were never even charged with a crime, contravening the right of habeas corpus.

Some are now being detained indefinitely. US authorities say there is not enough evidence to take them to trial, but they are deemed ‘too dangerous’ to be released.

Rough justice

Despite his failure to close the camp, President Obama sympathises with arguments directed at the US by human rights lawyers and activists. Obeying human rights law, they say, is a nation’s moral and legal obligation and Obama recognises that America’s failure to do so at Guantanamo leaves a large blot on its international reputation.

However, many members of the Republican Party strongly oppose the closure of the camp, as they believe it plays an important role in US national security. Locking up dangerous, radical, anti-Western elements and gathering military intelligence, at whatever cost, is crucial to the war on terror. The rights of a few individuals, they argue, are outweighed by the safety of an entire nation.

You Decide

  1. Should the prison at Guantanamo Bay ever have been set up? Should it be closed down now?
  2. Should human rights law be legally enforced at an international level, or should countries be left to police themselves?


  1. Many people want to see Guantanamo closed down, but it isn’t straightforward to accomplish. Look into some of the practical difficulties, then make a list of pros and cons for closing the camp down immediately.
  2. Draw up your own basic list of human rights with regards to imprisonment and trial. When, if ever, do you think those rights should be ignored?

Some People Say...

“When terrorists are attacking innocent people, human rights can be ignored.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t Guantanamo quite old news?
Ten years old, to be precise. But the human rights arguments surrounding detention without charge are still very relevant to all of us. The same argument continues in the UK, where the police are now allowed to detain terror suspects without charge for up to 28 days. That means that you can be put in prison for up to a month without any explanation whatsoever.
But they can’t detain just anyone, can they?
In theory, they could. And anyway, everyone is equal in the eyes of human rights law, so suspected terrorists still have the right to know why they are being detained. This has been one of the major problems at Guantanamo: even if they are charged, much of the evidence against detainees has been hidden from them, so they don’t even know what they’re supposed to be disputing.

Word Watch

The UK’s secret service abroad. MI6 is responsible for gathering information on any potential threat to the nation.
Human rights
In 1949 an international body drew up a document entitled the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’ It outlined the basic rights to which all individuals are entitled. Though it was not initially legally binding, it is now the basis of much international law and its principles have been enshrined in many legal systems, including in the UK.
Habeas corpus
The right any prisoner has to be brought before a judge to have his detention justified, which was routinely ignored at Guantanamo. It is written into the US constitution, but the US government claimed that it did not apply in Guantanamo because the camp is on foreign soil.


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