Law/Justice

The prison beyond the law

The U.S. has been holding terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay for 20 years. Will the camp ever close? Here’s everything you need to know:

Why was Guantánamo created?

The military detention facility first called Camp X-Ray was built in three days in early January 2002, to receive al Qaida and Taliban prisoners captured during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Shortly after Jan. 11, when the first 20 detainees arrived, the Pentagon released a startling photo of the men in orange jumpsuits, hooded and shackled, kneeling on the ground by a barbed-wire fence. The image sparked a national debate over human rights and national security that continues to this day. Over the next 20 years, the U.S. spent $11 billion on the camp as it expanded into a large compound called Camp Delta. Some 780 Muslim men and boys, from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, cycled through its prison cells, almost all without charges or trials. In the first three years, many were subjected to “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as waterboarding, beatings, and being forced to stay awake or exposed to blaring music for days. Only two were ever convicted of war crimes. After years of gradual releases and repatriations under four presidents, 39 remain in custody.

What is their legal status?

It’s in limbo. While trying to extract information from the prisoners, the Bush administration didn’t want them to be subject to the Geneva Conventions, so it classified them as “illegal enemy combatants,” a term not defined in international law. Trying these suspected terrorists in court, the administration said, was too big a risk: Those acquitted for lack of evidence could go free on U.S. soil and plot new attacks on Americans. So it sent the prisoners to the U.S. military base in Cuba, beyond the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. But a series of Supreme Court cases determined that the detainees could challenge their detention in federal court, and most obtained lawyers.

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