SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — A group of 20 suspected terrorists arrived in Guantanamo Bay 10 years ago Wednesday, inaugurating what would become the United States’ most controversial prison system and a lasting legacy of President George W. Bush’s administration.
Since then, what began as open-air cages has turned into a full-fledged detainee center, housing nearly 800 prisoners at its peak. Today, 171 detainees remain in the detention center, some of them deemed too dangerous to release and others with nowhere to go.
Opponents of the detention center Wednesday marked its 10-year anniversary with protests from Belgium to Washington, D.C. Protesters led by Amnesty International planned to march from the White House to the Supreme Court to rally against what they say is a facility that “has come to symbolize 10 years of a systematic failure by the USA to respect human rights.”
“Until the USA addresses these detentions as a human rights issue, the legacy of Guantanamo will live on whether or not the detention facility there is closed down,” said Amnesty International researcher Rob Freer.
Another group, Witness to Torture, attempted to form a “human chain” from the White House to the Capitol and multiple other groups planned similar events.
The detainees themselves are reportedly protesting in quiet. Ramzi Kassem, a professor of law at City University of New York who counsels some detainees, told the Washington Post that they are planning various “peaceful protests.” Some will go on a hunger strike for three days, while others will sleep in the recreation areas instead of returning to their cells for the four-hour nightly lockdown, he said.
President Obama signed an executive order Jan. 22, 2010 – one of his first as commander-in-chief – to shut down the detainee center that has become in some ways synonymous with water-boarding, a torture technique. But his plan to move the detainees to federal prisons on U.S. soil was met with fierce backlash on both sides of the political aisle. Even Democrats aligned with their Republican counterparts in refusing to allow the president and Attorney General Eric Holder to bring detainees into the United States for prosecution.
The administration had wanted to try five detainees alleged to be behind the Sept. 11 attacks in federal court in New York, but the plan was shelved in April because of the heavy resistance.
Unable to convince even his own party members of the merits of transferring detainees, or find host countries for some of the detainees who are cleared for transfer, the president eventually gave in and allowed military tribunals to resume at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The National Defense Authorization Act, which Obama signed on New Year’s Eve, effectively ends any chances of closing the controversial prison. For the second year in a row, it bars the Department of Defense from transferring detainees to the continental United States, or using funds to construct or expand facilities for housing them. It also tightens the conditions under which detainees can be transferred to other countries.
Of the remaining detainees, 46 are considered too dangerous to release. But 89 of the total number of men being held have been cleared for transfer or release. About half of that group has nowhere to go because they are Yemeni. Obama stopped the transfer of Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo in January, 2010, after “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound flight. He was found to have been trained by al Qaeda groups in Yemen.
Since 2002, more than 600 detainees have either been transferred out of Guantanamo Bay or have died in custody. Only six detainees have been convicted.
Some experts say the detainee center continues to hurt U.S. interests around the world, a sentiment Obama repeatedly espoused on the campaign trail. Others still believe the detainee center serves an important purpose.
The Obama administration continues to insist that closing the detainee center remains a top priority. After all, it was the president’s top promise as a candidate in 2008. But the administration in many ways has come to terms with the reality, acknowledging that breaking down the wall of resistance from Congress will be difficult.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio