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CGTN America examines the history, present, and possible future of the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Digital reporter Yasmeen Alamiri and Videographer Andrew Smith were in Guantanamo October of 2016, exploring this controversial facility and the fate of the detainees who remain there.


The fate of detainees held at the prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, hangs in the balance as the world awaits the inauguration of a new president of the United States.

Lawyer David Remes has been defending Guantanamo detainees for more than a decade. He says his clients never thought Donald Trump would succeed in getting elected.

“The detainees were quite agitated and alarmed when he was elected,” Remes said after returning from a trip to the prison last month.

Remes said two of his clients saw fellow detainees ask for tranquilizers to get to sleep on election night, a far different reaction from 2008, when prisoners reportedly cheered as they watched Barack Obama head towards victory.

WATCH: Fate of remaining Gitmo detainees in hands of new administration

While Obama had campaigned to shut down the detention facility and made many public promises during his presidency to close it, he failed in getting congressional support for his plans.

Just weeks before the 2012 election, many prisoners still remained positive they might be released. They were encouraged seeing fellow detainees finally get transferred off the base to other countries, according to U.S. Colonel Steve Gabavics, Commander of the Joint Detention Group.

Now all the prisoners know about their fate is that Trump has promised to keep Guantanamo open and “load it up with some bad dudes.”

“Trump is erratic, he’s unpredictable, it’s impossible to say what policies he’ll continue in terms of transfers, and continue to refuse,” Remes said.

Repeated requests by CGTN for comment on Guantanamo policy from the Trump transition team were not answered.

detainee walks around the communal space

A detainee walks around the communal space in one of the cell blocks in Camp 6, which is housing two-thirds of the total detainee population in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


The name Guantanamo often conjures images of prisoners in orange jumpsuits on their knees held behind barbed wire. That particular camp—Camp X-Ray—was closed after operating just a few months in 2002, but those early images and stories of alleged torture and wrongful imprisonment at Gitmo continue to linger in the American and global psyche.

In all, the Guantanamo prison has housed more than 750 detainees since former President George W. Bush opened it in early 2002, in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks of the previous year. At its height in 2003, the prison held 684 men. Holding people at Guantanamo is not without precedence. Former presidents George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton allowed the detainment there of tens of thousands of Haitian and Cuban refugees seeking U.S. asylum in the 1990s.

In the years since 2002, hundreds of prisoners have been released and moved to other nations. Of the 41 remaining detainees, 5 are cleared for release, but  still imprisoned because authorities have yet to find nations that will take them in and ensure that certain security conditions are met.

Another 26 detainees are being held without charge, but are deemed too dangerous to be released. The Periodic Review Board, which serves as a parole board for Guantánamo detainees, has recommended these men for “continued detention under the law of war.”

The remaining 10 detainees are facing military commissions, including five accused of plotting the September 11 terror attacks. These men are considered high-value detainees and are separated from the rest of the prison population in a building known as “Camp 7.” Residents of this camp include Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, believed to be the chief architect of the 9/11 attacks.

As of October 2016, all the prisoners were considered “compliant,” meaning they had non-disciplinary status and are able to roam in communal spaces within the prison confines for 22 hours a day. This has not always been the case at Gitmo. One conference room features a display of confiscated weapons made by detainees such as a faucet head shank.

WATCH: For Guantanamo detainees, it’s a life of ‘waiting’ for freedom

Inside the prison perimeter, additional attention has been paid to the health of the now-aging prisoner population. In fact, Guantanamo has an $8.4 million plan to turn the now-empty Camp 5 into a medical complex. The prison’s current medical facility treats detainees regularly. It’s also where prisoners on hunger strikes are sent for forced feedings.  A chair with arm and leg restraints sits next to a table lined with liquid meal replacements and feeding tubes. The medical staff proudly tells journalists that detainees have a choice in the lubrication used to ease the feeding tube down their throats.  A new addition is olive oil.

intensive care unit

The intensive care unit at Camp ECHO, which is part of the medical facility available to detainees on a regular basis.

While the U.S. government maintains conditions at Guantanamo are safe and humane, lawyers and advocates for the prisoners say continued detention has had a crippling effect on many detainees. They say there’s also anxiety over their unknown futures.

One detainee, Mohammed Bwazir, had been cleared for transfer to a European host country in January 2016, after being held without charge at Guantanamo for 15 years.

On his release date, Bwazir walked out of the prison and stepped onto the ramp to the military plane that would deliver him to freedom, when he felt so much anxiety that he turned around and returned to life behind bars.

He said he was overwhelmed about moving to a country with a foreign language and culture, and with no access to his family, his lawyer John Chandler told the Miami Herald. 

A year later, in the waning weeks of Obama’s term, Bwazir was one of four Yemenis transferred to Saudi Arabia — where Bwazir’s family were waiting for him.

“I want to give back to my family the 15 years I lost,” he said, upon arriving in Saudi Arabia.

Anxiety and depression are common in Guantanamo. In its 15-year history, seven deaths have been ruled suicides. The medical facility has made psychiatrists and counselors available to the detainees 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In 2012, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif died while in solitary confinement. Latif was 36 years old and had spent more than 10 years imprisoned at Guantanamo. The U.S. military ruled that Latif committed suicide with an overdose of prescription medication, complicated by pneumonia.

Remes, his lawyer, does not believe it was a suicide. Remes said he met with the detainee’s family in Yemen five years before Latif’s death, at a time when he was on a hunger strike to protest his detention without charge at Guantanamo.

“Nobody believed that he had committed suicide,” Remes said. “And the cause of death, while it has been ruled a suicide, it’s clear that it has been caused by ingesting an excessive amount of medication. But people don’t know what his motivation was, and how he could have amassed the medication in the first place, given the security he was under.”

Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif

In 2012, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif died while in solitary confinement.

But the Pentagon stands by its suicide determination, a spokesman saying it did not have “anything to add to the US military assessment of what happened.”

As of October 2016, the medical staff said no detainees had mental health concerns, according to Navy Commander Robert Sylvester, who runs the Guantanamo medical facility.

For Remes, the concept of providing mental health treatment at Guantanamo is a “sham.”

“There’s a fundamental contradiction in providing mental health for… people who have been brutalized,” Remes said. “The goal wasn’t to treat these men, seriously, it was to subdue them.”

Detainees line up for evening prayer

Detainees line up for evening prayer at Camp 6. Detainees have the choice to pray as a group or alone in their cells for their five daily prayers.


In February 2016, Obama outlined a plan to close the facility that would continue transferring detainees approved for release, accelerate the review process for remaining detainees, re-evaluate the legal framework of the military commission process, and work with Congress to find a location in the United States to house the remaining detainees.

One potential location discussed was the federal “Supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado. This prison currently houses Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, attempted “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and attempted “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

The U.S. Congress, however, has blocked every proposal made by the Obama administration that would put Guantanamo prisoners on American soil – citing perceived dangers to local communities.

The White House sees it differently.

“Keep in mind we are already detaining hardened, dangerous criminals in the United States. So this doesn’t require us to do anything differently than we’ve already been doing,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in one press briefing.

With an uncertain future, the base has contingency plans for both the closure of the prison and its continued operation.  Staff has been scaled down, with 400 troops leaving at the end of 2016 due to the decreasing number of detainees being held. 

Letter by President Obama on Guantanamo, on his last full day as president

Download full document

detainee cell

A detainee cell at the now vacant Camp 5 at Guantanamo Bay detention center.

A history of Guantanamo Bay

Interactive timeline from 1898 to present

WATCH: The tale of two Guantanamos


In remarks following his February 2016 plan to close Guantanamo prison, Obama said, “I don’t want to pass this problem on to the next President, whoever it is.”

President-elect Trump however, views the issue quite differently.

In the midst of the latest detainee transfers out of Guantanamo by the Obama administration, Trump on January 3, 2017 tweeted :

Trump 2017 tweet on GITMO

Trump’s view is shared by many Republican lawmakers.

“In my opinion the only problem with Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now,” Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said in a February 2015 Senate hearing.

“We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe. As far as I’m concerned every last one of them can rot in Hell, but as long as they don’t do that they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.”

Trump, aside from his tweet and stated desire to fill Guantanamo with “bad dudes,” has not offered any details on what he will do with the prison.

WATCH: The fate of Guantanamo now rests with President Trump

An October 2016 statement released by the Trump campaign cited former Congressman and Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Peter Hoekstra’s criticism of the Obama administration’s efforts to empty Guantanamo, calling them “dangerous and lawless.”

Hoekstra criticized the release of detainees to third countries, saying, “Dozens of released detainees have already returned to combat against the U.S. and our allies.”

The Obama administration’s own report on recidivism says seven detainees released over the years are confirmed to have engaged again in terrorist activity and five more are suspected of renewing terrorist links.

Trump has nominated James Mattis for Defense Secretary, a retired U.S. Marine General. If confirmed, Mattis will be charged with overseeing Guantanamo policy.

In a January 2015 hearing on the Obama administration’s release of detainees from Guantanamo, Mattis supported long-term detention of terror suspects.

“If you sign up with this enemy, they should know we are coming after you,” Mattis said in his testimony. “If the Commander-in-Chief sends us out there, if taken prisoner, you will be a prisoner until the war is over.”

WATCH: Possible scenarios of Guantanamo prison under Trump

Trump has also nominated former Senator Dan Coats to serve as the Director of National Intelligence. Coats has been an open opponent of shuttering the detention facility.

“For years, the facility at Guantanamo Bay has been a valuable tool in our counterterrorism efforts. Moving Guantanamo detainees into the United States poses significant security risks, and we should not endanger American families simply for President Obama’s legacy,” Coats said in a statement responding to Obama’s February 2016 plan to close Guantanamo.

While Trump’s position on Guantanamo has yet to be fully outlined, one thing is certain. If “loaded up” with more prisoners, the facility, which now costs about $450 million a year to operate with a population of less than 100 detainees, will certainly need more funding.

PHOTO GALLERY: Inside Guantanamo Bay

Images from the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in October, 2016.