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Guantanamo’s Inmate Count at All-Time Low

By Luis Cabrera

One of the campaign promises of candidate Obama back in 2008 was to close the United States’ Detainee Center in Guantanamo Bay. Four years later, his administration may be quietly moving toward that goal. The inmate population there is at an all-time low with a prisoner count of only 168, down from 680 detainees at the height of the war on terror. Obama promised to shut down Guantanamo at the end of his first year in office, but that proved impossible because of strong opposition in Congress.

The latest prisoner freed there was no other than Osama Bin Laden’s driver and cook, 52-year-old Ibrahim al-Qosi. A Sudanese citizen, Qosi was also one of the first arrivals at the Naval Base in Cuba; he was arrested overseas and transported to the prison in 2002.

The offshore detainee center was once portrayed as a no-way-out jail on which the unlucky militants suspected of terrorism who were there had little or no hope left. However, that public perception might have been exaggerated by the media; contrary to the bad image, there is formal counseling and legal avenues to get out of Guantanamo. For example, a detainee can prove that he should not be held at all through habeas corpus appeals. In other instances, they can go to trial and try to prove their innocence before a military tribunal.

Additionally, a detainee can work on a plea bargain like in the case of Qosi, who pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and supporting terrorism. Qosi was sentenced to 14 years in prison but a portion of that time was suspended under the plea-deal and he received credit for time served.

In a rare occurrence last month that resulted in another inmate leaving, the pentagon announced that it was dropping charges against Kuwaiti prisoner Faiz al-Kandari. Reasons for the change of heart in the federal prosecution were not disclosed to the public. Kandari had been imprisoned at Guantanamo since 2008. He was accused of training with al-Qaida among other serious terrorism allegations.

The irony in some of these cases is that those who get on a law procedural path usually see the light of day much faster than those who stay detained in a legal limbo. Matthew Waxman, a Columbia University law professor and former Bush legal adviser, said that “some detainees that have been convicted of war crimes are being released much earlier than detainees that are not brought for any trial at all.”

It is important to notice that legal proceedings for Guantanamo detainees in a federal court are rare, and most of the law-related motions are carried out in a military commission at the naval base.

Guantanamo’s Closure Not Any Time Soon

In what may be seen as a creative political move to comply with his campaign promise, the Obama administration has been evaluating whether to transfer some of its Taliban prisoners there to another jail facility in Afghanistan. However, with al-Qaida still very active and trying new tactics to win the minds and hearts of young militants, it is still doubtful the detainee center in Guantanamo will be closed soon.

Professor Waxman believes that the detainee center at the naval base is not going anywhere for the time being. “Guantanamo is going to be open for a long time,” he expressed.