The seizing of Afghanistan by the Taliban raises yet another question, this one lying literally closer to home. What will be the status of the release of incarcerated people at the U.S.’ Guantánamo Bay prison (Gitmo)? The maximum-security detention center has been the subject of controversy for decades, mainly due to its accusations of torture and its culture of unforgiving conditions. According to the New York Times, “Once [those incarcerated] arrived at Guantánamo Bay and were placed in the base’s most clandestine of lockups, called Camp 7, they were kept in isolation most of the day. When they were allowed out of their cells, guards would take them in shackles and chains so short they could only shuffle.” The prison was opened in 2002 to house people deemed to be direct perpetrators or supporters of terrorism. The majority of those incarcerated are citizens of Afghanistan. Prior to the Taliban’s recent escalation, efforts were under way by President Biden to follow Barack Obama’s mission of closing the prison. However, like many other U.S.-driven initiatives of the war on terror, the status of the prison is now confusing and concerning.
The total number of detained persons in the prison stands at 39. The majority of the detained are considered to be “forever prisoners,” meaning that they have never and likely will never receive a fair trial and will die in detainment. Some recent anti-release rhetoric has included spotlights on former detainees who became involved with the Taliban or who were avid supporters of its militia leaders. However, a human-rights perspective should be considered, for the detainees as much as for the loved ones of those lost by acts of terror.
The American ideal of a right to fair trial should not be confined to those convicted or incarcerated in the U.S. After all, the justification, however flawed, for the war on terror is that American ideals will save and better areas such as Afghanistan. Why should the American standard of the right to a fair trial be sacrificed for those captured? A fair trial, by definition, does not mean automatic conviction.
From this human rights and fairness perspective, Alka Pradhan, a defense attorney for a detainee, says, “Every guy I have represented just wants to get as far away from the United States' reach as they can...They want to go away, live quietly. They never want to be incarcerated again. So the idea that they'd leave Guantánamo after 20 years and want to be leaders of some sort of Taliban militia, or even want to go to Afghanistan to that kind of chaos—it's just psychologically not where any of them are.” The inflated national safety risk often associated with the release process is not as black and white as it is often portrayed, which should prompt reflection on our national conviction to respect the inherent dignity of every human being by way of a fair trial.
A fair trial for several of the detainees will also bring justice and closure to many of the loved ones of victims of terror, who have been waiting for as many as 20 years. Families and friends of victims still experience grief and scarring, a fact which should be unacceptable according to our American ethos. The solace they earn with Gitmo detainees’ trials is well-deserved, especially in the wake of confusing and seemingly never-ending tribulations that seem to progress so slowly.
We should consider what are considered to be American ideals and avoid hypocrisy related to our conviction to “spread” these ideals around the world. That is, as a result of our actions during the war on terror, a fair trial for detainees should be honored. For the sake of human rights everywhere and for the respect of those suffering a loss, the bare minimum that is warranted is a trial.