Congressional Deal Clears The Way For Long-Blocked Gitmo Transfers


A deal between the House and Senate is set to clear the way for the the transfer of more than half of the current detainees at the prison in Guantanamo Bay to other countries, a move that Congress has long prevented.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is one of the most closely watched bills to come out of the Congress each year, as it is considered one of the bills that a president is particularly loathe to veto. Each side of the Capitol’s initial draft of the Fiscal Year 2014 NDAA included a different view of what should be done with the 162 detainees remaining imprisoned in the United States’ outpost on Cuba. Within the Senate version, detainees would be allowed to be brought to the U.S. for trial in civilian courts. In the House’s draft, meanwhile, all current restrictions on prisoner transfers would remain in place.

In what’s being hailed as a compromise, the ban on moving detainees to the United States remains, while the president is given the authority to increase the number of detainees transferred to third countries. At present, 84 of the detainees set for release or transfer have yet to be moved; 55 of those would be reptriated to Yemen in the event they are given the green light from the Pentagon. President Obama in April pledged once more to make good on his campaign promise close the facility, with a boost in transfers included as part of the strategy.

“This is a bipartisan bill that meets our obligations to our men and women in uniform and their families and includes important reforms and authorities for the Department of Defense,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said. His Republican counterpart, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), agreed, urging his colleagues “to move quickly to pass this bill before we adjourn for the year.”

Transfers for those cleared to be sent overseas became one of the focal points of this year’s widespread hunger strike among the camp’s detainees. At its peak, more than 100 of the detention center’s occupants were on strike, refusing meals after their copies of the Quran were searched and their fellow inmates cleared for transfer remained in place. Gitmo authorities responded by force-feeding dozens of the strikers, in doing so drawing international condemnation for violating medical ethics. Army Capt. Jason Wright, a detainee lawyer, told ThinkProgress in March when asked about how to end the hunger strike that one step could be through providing hope to detainees, through the previously promised release of some of their co-inhabitants.

Several amendments were offered last year to aid in the closure of the base, but the only change to the NDAA that passed through Congress related to GTMO involved expansions of the prison, to the tune of $200 million. In recent months, however, Congress has finally begun to balk at the amount of money it costs to keep Guantanamo open. “The annual cost of holding a prisoner at the Supermax is $79,000,” CAP expert Ken Gude wrote at ThinkProgress last week. “At Guantanamo, that number is $2.7 million.”

The most recent transfer from Guantanamo took place on December 5, when two detainees — Djamel Saiid Ali Ameziane and Bensayah Belkecem — were sent to their country of origin, Algeria. Rather than being praised, however, activists are condemning the transfer due to Algeria’s record of human rights abuses. Instead, they would have preferred that the two had been transferred to a third country, such as Luxembourg who has offered to take in former detainees.

“We demand that the Algerian Government immediately release Djamel Ameziane from secret detention, treat him humanely, and respect his human rights,” said Ameziane’s Center for Constitutional Rights attorney J. Wells Dixon in a statement. “We further call on the international community to demand transparency and accountability from the Algerian government and to ensure that Mr. Ameziane does not suffer persecution now or in the future.”