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Three things the Minnesota National Guard company deploying to Guantanamo should know

Requiring members of Minnesota’s National Guard to participate in the calamity that is Guantanamo, especially at a time of heightened health risk, benefits nobody.

A guard opens the gate at the entrance to Camp VI, a prison used to house detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A guard opens the gate at the entrance to Camp VI, a prison used to house detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
REUTERS/Bob Strong

The Minnesota National Guard’s 34th Military Police Company is deploying to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The company’s mission is to “provide security,” presumably regarding the 40 Muslim men whom the United States continues to hold captive there nearly two decades after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Guantanamo has long been cloaked in secrecy and is rarely the subject of public scrutiny. Here are three facts about the island prison to which the soldiers are headed that they, and all Minnesotans, should know:

Detainees: aging and increasingly sick

First, the detainees are an aging and increasingly sick population of torture survivors and victims of similarly significant trauma.

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For example, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, tortured by the CIA, is described by his doctor as “one of the most severely traumatized individuals I have ever seen.” Mohammed al-Qahtani, tortured by the military, developed PTSD, which further exacerbated his pre-existing schizophrenia and traumatic brain injury. al-Qahtani’s condition is so severe that a federal court ordered he be evaluated without delay by an independent panel of doctors, a process that could result in his repatriation.

Then there is Saifullah Paracha, a 73-year-old who has had multiple heart attacks and suffers from “diabetes, coronary artery disease, diverticulosis, gout, psoriasis and arthritis;” Nashwan al-Tamir, who has had four spinal surgeries in two years; and Sharqawi Al Hajj, a fragile hunger striker who has repeatedly attempted suicide. The list goes on.

Scott Roehm
Scott Roehm
Compounding these and other complex health conditions that detainees are enduring is the physical and psychological debilitation associated with prolonged indefinite detention.

From three decades of providing healing services to torture survivors across the globe, we at the Center for Victims of Torture know that the indeterminacy of such detention creates so much uncertainty, unpredictability, and loss of control over the elemental aspects of one’s life that it seriously harms even healthy individuals.

Not prepared for a COVID outbreak

Second, Guantanamo is not prepared for, and cannot handle, a COVID-19 outbreak.

As I documented in a recent report with colleagues from Physicians for Human Rights, Guantanamo does not have the infrastructure, equipment, or expertise to manage atypical health needs. That problem is acute in the face of the pandemic.

On April 7, the military reported Guantanamo’s second case of COVID-19, this one among detention facility staff. It has since “imposed a blackout on disclosures,” per Carol Rosenberg at the New York Times.

Were the virus to spread further the consequences could be catastrophic, including for Minnesota’s soldiers. Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, M.D., who previously commanded all Army medical operations in the Southeast region, and who has spent hundreds of hours evaluating detainees and interfacing with Guantanamo’s medical care system, explained why in a letter to Congress:

Some detainees have demonstrated serious preexisting illnesses that predispose them to poor outcomes if they become infected and require intensive care. My observations of healthcare services at Guantánamo since 2008 have been that the medical treatment facility … has not been equipped to treat and manage severely sick and complex patients. The spread of COVID-19 among the detainees could quickly overwhelm the capacity of the facility to treat them adequately and safeguard against an uncontrolled contagion across the base.

Echoing Dr. Xenakis, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and 11 of her colleagues issued a joint statement on Friday expressing their “… doubts about the Guantánamo prison’s capacity to protect military personnel and detainees from Covid-19.” The statement responds to new information from the Defense Department that the senators’ sought regarding Guantanamo’s ability to manage the pandemic.

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$13 million per detainee, per year

Third, it costs taxpayers $540 million annually — more than $13 million per detainee — to sustain Guantanamo and to operate the war court system there.

From 2012 to 2018, the government spent $680 million on the military commissions alone, and projects to spend another billion through at least 2023. These novel courts have secured just eight convictions in 18 years, seven of which have been overturned in whole or in part on appeal. The case against the men alleged to be most responsible for the 9/11 attacks has not yet gone to trial.

Even President Donald Trump has lamented Guantanamo’s exorbitant costs and, more subtly, the military commissions’ incompetence.

Imagine what $1 billion over the next two years could do for the millions of Americans who have lost jobs during the pandemic, small business owners shutting their doors, and schools struggling under state budget cuts and reallocation of scarce revenue.

Guantanamo must be closed. Until that day, Minnesota’s National Guard members should be in Minnesota doing work that benefits Minnesota. Requiring them to participate in the calamity that is Guantanamo, especially at a time of heightened health risk, benefits nobody.

Scott Roehm is the Washington director for the St. Paul-based Center for Victims of Torture.

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