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Guantánamo Bay has been open for 22 years despite calls for its closure

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

It was 22 years ago this week that the U.S. opened a military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to hold suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. That prison remains open today. It still holds 30 men, many of whom have never been criminally charged, and there has still been no 9/11 trial. So this week, a group of nearly 100 advocacy organizations sent a letter to President Biden urging him to finally close the facility. One of them is the Center for Victims of Torture, and its director of global policy and advocacy, Scott Roehm, is with us. Scott, thanks for making time.

SCOTT ROEHM: Thanks for having me, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Resistance to closing Guantanamo has generally been Republican-led, but that's fading the further away we get from 9/11. So why do you think the Biden administration hasn't made closing Gitmo more of a priority?

ROEHM: I think it's largely been a lack of courage and a lack of priority. There weren't nearly enough transfers out of Guantanamo. The administration released a handful of men earlier in the year, and then the transfers stopped. These are men that all of the agencies in the U.S. government with a significant national security function have agreed, unanimously, should be released. They no longer need to continue to be held. Their detention doesn't serve a national security purpose. In most cases, these decisions were made years ago.

PFEIFFER: We should note that these are often referred to as forever prisoners - people held in indefinite detention even when, as you said, they're sometimes cleared for release, but still are held because the administration is trying to find countries to take them, so they languish.

ROEHM: That's right. I think it's hard to imagine that the State Department couldn't find a single country in the world willing to receive some of these cleared-for-release men. And so it appears they're continuing to languish at Guantanamo because that's what senior-most administration officials chose to do.

PFEIFFER: One big obstacle to closing Guantanamo is these forever prisoners languishing even though they've been cleared for release. Another big obstacle is that the 9/11 trial is hopelessly gridlocked - years and years of pretrial proceedings that many people think will never lead to a trial. There had been settlement talks underway to try to get the defendants to plead guilty in return for life in prison - what we assumed would be life in prison. But last summer, the Biden administration derailed that process by rejecting some proposed conditions of the deal. What did you think when you heard that?

ROEHM: This has been called the most important criminal case in U.S. history. And yet, for 16 years, the case has been spinning its wheels haplessly - this kind of rusty hamster wheel of injustice. And it's still years away even from a trial. A plea agreement is, realistically, the only way to resolve the case with some measure of justice and finality for victim family members at this point, and that's because the prosecution is built largely on quicksand. Almost all of the government's evidence that it would use in order to convict the men is based on torture.

Why did the administration reject a plea deal? As with most things Guantanamo, the answer is probably political. More specifically, I would guess a fear that there would be some public opposition to a plea agreement. If that's the reason, it is as misguided as it is disheartening. There will always be mixed reaction to anything that involves Guantanamo. There can't be perfect solutions to closing a place that's been so broken in so many complex ways for so long. It really comes down to the administration mustering some courage to make good on the president's promise.

PFEIFFER: Scott, three previous presidents have not shut down Guantanamo. How hopeful - or not - are you that your letter will actually influence the Biden administration's decision-making on Guantanamo?

ROEHM: I certainly hope it will. If this is the path we're on, then I'm pessimistic. But it doesn't have to be the path we're on. This could change tomorrow, and I'm hopeful that it will. And we'll do everything we can, you know, to try to convince the administration that that's the right thing to do.

PFEIFFER: Scott Roehm is director of global policy and advocacy at the Center for Victims of Torture. Thank you.

ROEHM: Thanks so much for having me, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "SING ABOUT ME, I'M DYING OF THIRST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Gus Contreras
Emma Klein