President Joe Biden has said he plans to close Guantánamo Bay, the infamous military prison in Cuba, by the end of his term. But in the months since Biden took office, detainees there say, conditions have deteriorated. New cruelties, like forbidding guards to talk to prisoners, denying medicine, and restricting services, have recently been imposed, detainees and their advocates tell VICE News.
Several people have protested their treatment and engaged in a hunger strike; at one point around Ramadan this year, every detainee in Camp 6, one of the prison blocks, participated in a unanimous hunger strike.
“How can it be that we are waiting for Biden to come, and it has become so much worse than when Trump was president?” Abdul Latif Nasser, a 19-year detainee at the prison without trial, told VICE News through his lawyers at Reprieve U.S., an international human rights organization that represents six detainees at Guantánamo.
“How can it be that we are waiting for Biden to come, and it has become so much worse than when Trump was president?”
Nasser, who is from Morocco, is what's known as a “forever prisoner”; though he was cleared for transfer in 2016, he has no idea when, or if, he will ever be free.
Besides Nasser, detainees Asadullah Haroon Gul and Ahmed Rabbani have told VICE News through their lawyers that conditions at the American military prison have rapidly worsened over the last few months. Men like them at Guantánamo count their years through passing American presidents; when Biden was elected, they hoped things might improve. But while conditions at the prison have never been exemplary, detainees say they have recently become even less tolerable.
Set up by President George W. Bush’s administration in 2002 following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Guantánamo held about 780 people at its peak, including terrorist suspects and combatants from Afghanistan. While hundreds have been released over the years and transferred to other countries and U.S. prisons, Guantánamo still remains open, and scores of critics have pointed to the torture and harsh interrogation methods once used there as indicative of the U.S.’ now almost 20-year “war on terror.”
Now, Biden has indicated he wants to close the prison by the end of his term, though that doesn’t currently seem likely. “When the election happened, there was kind of a sense of relief. Again, realistic, not expecting things to change overnight or anything, but OK, at least now we can start moving forward,” said Mark Maher, a lawyer with Reprieve U.S. who represents detainees at Guantánamo.
But over time, Maher said, his clients became alarmed as they said their situations worsened. “The past couple of conversations I’ve had have been some of the hardest I’ve had to have with my clients.”
Detainees described deteriorating facilities with broken toilets and locks and burned-out lightbulbs, what appears to be a slowdown in medical treatment with basics like aspirin and band-aids not available, and harsher treatment from guards.
In prior administrations, detainees said, there was at least some communication with guards, but now they face the silent treatment. “Usually, if a guard is around, you might just speak with them about movies, culture, food, etc.,” Nasser said. “There is now no communication between guards and detainees.”
The switch was so abrupt, he said, it appeared to be a directive from above. “I am suspicious there is some kind of order we don’t know about,” he said. “It is creating a tension between the guards and the detainees that we do not need.”
“There is now no communication between guards and detainees.”
In addition, the physical condition of the facility appears to be decaying. “The lock on my cell has been broken for weeks,” said Gul, onetime commander of the now-former Hezb-i-Islami militia which once fought alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban. “There are brothers here, their toilets have been broken for months. It is awful. They do not care about us.”
Just last month, the Justice Department argued at a U.S. district court hearing that despite a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. will continue to detain Gul, who’s been detained for 14 years. “We remain at war with al Qaeda,” said Justice Department lawyer Stephen Elliot during the civil proceeding. The government of Afghanistan has recently requested Gul’s return as well.
Now, Gul is protesting his treatment. “I am still on hunger strike and I am refusing my food. This is my peaceful protest. It is a very clear and peaceful message without violence,” he said. “As far as my health condition, every single day of my life in [Guantánamo], my health is getting worse and I am suffering from many health issues.”
The unified hunger strike for the men of Camp 6, according to Maher, took place primarily over Ramadan. “It’s an important time of the year, and for them it’s already a difficult time because it’s a time they would be spending with their families.” It was to make a point to the administration, Maher said, about the seriousness of their current situation.
But detainees aren’t sure the administration is listening. “We used to pray for Biden to come and be the president for the United States,” Nasser added. “A lot of things are happening that haven’t happened in 19 years.”
Gul echoed that feeling: “It does not matter who the president is—Biden or Trump—we are the victims always. Me, I am feeling bad. I have a headache constantly, my eye is twitching. Even now my hands are shaking as I try to talk to you,” he said.
Gul also said he is not getting appropriate medical care. “It is not easy to get the appropriate medication in Gitmo. It is sad that I am not allowed to see my medical records, which are classified,” he said. “This is a big reason why I worry about my health. I do not know how long I will survive. Only God knows.”
“It does not matter who the president is—Biden or Trump—we are the victims always.”
“There’s a great deal of frustration and agitation and despair,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents Sharqawi Al Hajj, a current Guantánamo detainee. Kebriaei also corroborated these concerns of deteriorating conditions, and her communications with Al Hajj, she said, have given her the sense that “things have gone from bad to worse since the Biden administration came to office.” Her own client, she said, is still on hunger strike and has been on and off for years.
The Department of Defense disputes these accounts and not only denies that conditions have changed there but also says there have been no hunger strikes at Camp 6. “There are no changes in treatment of the detainees at the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay detention facility under the current administration,” Michael L. Howard, spokesperson for the Department of Defense, told VICE News. “There are no current or ongoing individual or unified hunger strikes among the detainees. The mission at the detention facility is aligned with American values in that it provides safe, humane, and legal care of Law of Armed Conflict detainees who would otherwise be dedicated to harming the United States and its citizens.”
“Detainees receive a full complement of state of the art medical care to include a full primary care and critical care staff as well as access to any specialty care recommended by the primary care team,” Howard added.
Still, making life more bearable at the prison itself is a short-term goal; these men want to be transferred.
“It’s been over four years since there’s been a transfer from Guantánamo, with one exception. There are people that are approaching 19 years of detention,” said Kebriaei. “It has been years without movement, there’s been total stagnation. I think when Biden came into office, there was, of course, expectation … and now that we’ve got six months without any official policy, any transfer, even of the men who’ve been cleared for years.”
The slowdown of services has also been particularly troubling to these men. “To get absolutely anything, a band-aid, an aspirin, to get a lightbulb changed in your cell, if there’s a problem with the plumbing and things like that, the way it’s been described to me is that normally under past administrations, is that if they wave at the camera in their cell, they get some kind of response from the guards after a certain period of time,” said Maher. “Everything has just been taking longer.”
Rabbani has been detained for 19 years without trial, and his brother, also held at the prison, was recently marked for release by Biden. “Any medicine that is needed, it takes months. Problems with the electricity, etc., takes a long time to fix it,” said Rabbani, who was brutally tortured by the U.S. He has never been charged with a crime and his name appears as a victim in the U.S. Senate Report on Torture at Guantánamo.
“Any medicine that is needed, it takes months.”
“The overarching problem is that the changes they’re describing were just arbitrary and kind of cruel,” said Maher. “One of the things that was told to me is that, about three weeks ago, there were random searches of cells during their lockdown period in the afternoon—whereas before, you kind of knew whose cell would be searched.” These new procedures, added Maher, just increased the stress of the detainees. “Just being kept in the dark about why things are changing is a special type of cruelty.”
“We are all suffering. Feeling that at any time, the guard will come and search us,” said Nasser. “This makes no sense—there are cameras on us all the time. We are feeling that stress.”
Now, of the 40 detainees remaining at the prison, about half are held in “Law of War detention,” though they don’t face specific charges and aren’t recommended for release. Nine people have been recommended for secure transfers to other countries, seven face active charges, three face proposed charges, and two have been convicted by the U.S. military.
These men hail from all over the world, including Afghanistan, Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Libya, Somalia, and Kenya. They arrived between 2002 and 2008, with some having now been detained for almost 20 years.
Though President Barack Obama announced plans to close the prison within his first year of office, he did not do it, as concerns about where the detainees would be transferred—from supermax prisons in the U.S. to other countries—stalled the process. In 2018, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep the prison open and approved the transfer of only one inmate.
While there is some movement from the Biden administration, critics like Maher say it doesn’t feel like enough. On June 7, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the Biden administration was looking to instate a State Department envoy to actively work on closing Guantánamo’s prison. "I want to make sure that the department has what it needs both in terms of resources and personnel, and including someone who can focus on this full-time to do that,” Blinken told a hearing of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
A few days later, it was announced that the envoy position may now be on hold.
“We all certainly understand that the Biden administration has a lot on its plate, but we’re getting to the point where this has to start being a priority,” said Maher. “It’s no small thing for them to have been kept for close to 20 years with very limited access to their family and with no real explanation as to why it is that they continue to be detained.”
While politicians in Washington have argued about how, precisely, they plan to end Guantánamo, it’s the remaining detainees that suffer.
“It’s mounting this feeling that it is intolerable to continue being there without absolutely any movement after all this time,” said Kebriaei. “It’s another moment of tensions really simmering.”
“I think what happens when tensions bubble over and simmer over is potentially going to be more tragic.”
The simmering has happened before: In 2013, more than 100 detainees at Guantánamo participated in a mass hunger strike over their treatment, including what they said were sacrilegious searches through their Korans. The protest lasted for [five] months and many were force-fed and hospitalized. Still, the detainees returned the prison to the U.S.’ national agenda.
“I think we’re seeing this in slow motion happen again,” said Kebriaei. “What’s different from 2013 is we’re eight years later, eight years of more age, ill health, depression, and desperation. I think what happens when tensions bubble over and simmer over is potentially going to be more tragic.”
Some of the detainees aren’t sure how much more they can take. “I think to die in Gitmo is better than to stay alive—it is a lonely life and prolonged detention is prolonged hopelessness,” said Gul. “Life here is like a nightmare.”