End 20 Years Of Injustice

Elizabeth Warren and 14 Other Senators Ask Pentagon About Coronavirus Protections at Guantánamo

A collage of the U.S. Congress and the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

By Andy Worthington, June 4, 2020

The prisoners at Guantánamo Bay — held, for the most part, without charge or trial for over 18 years now — have rarely had the support they should have received from the various branches of the U.S. government — the executive branch, Congress and the judiciary — considering how outrageous it is for prisoners of the U.S. to be held in such fundamentally unjust conditions.

Since Donald Trump became president, of course, any pretence of even caring about this situation has been jettisoned. Trump loves Guantánamo, and is happy for the 40 men still held to be imprisoned until they die, and he hasn’t changed his mind as a new threat — the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 — has emerged.

Last week, however, representatives of another group of people with a long history of not doing much for the prisoners — lawmakers — sent a letter to defense secretary Mark T. Esper calling for clarification regarding what, if anything, the Pentagon is doing to "prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic among detainees in the prison facility at the United States Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (Guantánamo), as well as efforts to protect service members responsible for detention operations and all other military personnel at the base."

The signatories to the letter, initiated by Elizabeth Warren, are Bernie Sanders, Dianne Feinstein, Richard J. Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Jack Reed, Edward J. Markey, Sherrod Brown, Tammy Baldwin, Cory A. Booker, Christopher A. Coons, Jeffrey A. Merkley, Ron Wyden, Benjamin L. Cardin and Thomas R. Carper — all Democrats, apart from Sanders, an Independent.

In their letter, they also noted, "Given current U.S. restrictions on the transfer of detainees off the base and the lack of comprehensive medical infrastructure on the premises, we are concerned that the incidence of COVID-19 on the base combined with an already at-risk detainee population could cause a significant outbreak endangering the health and safety of all."

The Senators noted the two confirmed incidences of coronavirus on the base — a sailor who was "apparently not involved in detention operations," whose infection and isolation was announced on March 24, and another individual, "involved in detention operations," whose positive COVID-19 test was announced on April 7.

"However," as they proceeded to explain, "it remains unclear whether the Department’s coronavirus infection control efforts will be enough to protect the health of the 40 detainees at the Guantánamo prison facility, some of whom are 'aging detainees [who] could require specialized treatment for issues such as heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, or even cancer,'" according to "Deprivation and Despair: The Crisis of Medical Care at Guantánamo," a June 2019 report by the Center for Victims of Torture and Physicians for Human Rights. Citing that same report, the Senators also explained that "there are serious concerns 'about Guantánamo's ability to provide medical care to the remaining detainees as time passes and with seemingly no prospect of their release,' noting that the facility 'did not have the specialists and equipment necessary' to care for them."

Furthermore, as the Senators explained, "This aging and chronically ill population, some of whom retain the mental and physical wounds of torture, may be at greater risk of serious medical complications from COVID-19. Another complicating factor is current U.S.law, which strictly prohibits the transfer of Guantánamo detainees off the base to other U.S. territory. Although the Senate adopted an amendment to a version of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have permitted temporary detainee transfers to DoD medical facilities in the United States for 'emergency or critical medical treatment,' this provision was not included in the final law." See our articles here and here about the 2020 NDAA, and how efforts to provide support for the prisoners, and to move towards closing the prison, were shut down.

As the Senators also explained, again drawing on the report cited above, "Some of the Guantánamo detainees' health conditions are also worsened by the prolonged, indefinite detention […], a form of abuse that has been extensively documented to carry severe and long-lasting health consequences."

They added, "Given the incidence of COVID-19 at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, the serious and deteriorating health conditions of detainees,the deficient infrastructure to care for complex medical needs at the prison facility, and the strict prohibition on detainee transfers to the United States — even temporary transfers for urgent medical reasons — we are concerned that our military personnel responsible for detention operations, as well as the detainees themselves, are at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 and suffering severe health consequences."

As the Senators also explained, "Unfortunately, current rigid restrictions on detainee transfers prevent the United States from securely resettling or repatriating Guantánamo detainees, and in effect, prevent the fair adjudication of cases against any remaining detainees under U.S. domestic criminal law. In particular, an act of Congress would be required to authorize temporary and conditional medical transfers of detainees to DoD medical facilities in the United States."

The Senators added that "Congress and the Trump Administration should work together to close the Guantánamo Bay prison facility, which represents a 'legal black hole' for detainees and reportedly costs $540 million per year to operate, or $13 million per prisoner. In the meantime, we seek to ensure that our detention operations serve the best interest of the health and safety of everyone on base."

To this end, they asked four questions to conclude their letter, also calling for a response by June 10:

1. What procedures are in place to address a confirmed or presumed positive case of COVID-19 among detainees or military personnel involved in detainee operations? Please include a discussion of the capacity of medical care available at the facility. Are prevention and treatment options at the base consistent with applicable Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standards?

2. Are independent medical experts currently available, either in person or remotely, to all the 40 detainees currently held at Guantánamo, if requested by them or their legal counsel? If so, please state how many experts are currently available and the hours and days during which those medical experts are available to examine and treat detainees.

3. If detainees provide their informed consent, are their counsel, independent medical experts, and any other authorized parties provided full unredacted copies of their medical records, as well as updates to those records?

4. What is the status of DoD's appointment of a Chief Medical Officer at the U.S.Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, as required by the FY 2020 NDAA?