No Sign Of Closing Up Shop At Guantanamo

As the pretrial hearing of the man accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks resumes Monday at Guantanamo Bay, dozens of other detainees are held in limbo there. Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald speaks with NPR's Rachel Martin about the situation at Gitmo, including the trouble with "forever prisoners."

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Rachel Martin. The U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay could be closer to shutting down. The Senate is expected to vote this week on a big defense funding bill, and the bill includes provisions that will make it easier to transfer Guantanamo detainees to other countries. The House approved the bill last week. Human rights groups are praising the legislation as an important step towards closing the prison and freeing the detainees who have long been cleared for release. Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald has covered Guantanamo Bay extensively, and she says those cleared for release make up for about half of all the detainees at this point.

CAROL ROSENBERG: Eighty-two of the 162 prisoners are cleared for transfer, meaning they could go to the custody of another country if the U.S. could make arrangements that satisfy the security concerns.

MARTIN: And are those Americans security concerns or are they security concerns of the home country?

ROSENBERG: No. They're ours. The U.S. wants foreign countries to keep an eye on them. The U.S. seeks assurances that when they get sent to these countries, whether it's their own countries or a resettlement nation that they're going to be able to go forward with their lives and not become a problem again if they were a problem in the past.

MARTIN: And when we talk about the home countries - Yemen, for example, is a country with a lot of political instability. There are concerns that even if they were detained in a Yemeni facility that they would be able to break out.

ROSENBERG: Yes. If they solve the Yemen problem - I think some 56, 55 of the 82 cleared prisoners are out of there. And this administration and the last administration have been very concerned that you send them back to Yemen - bad economy, unstable country - they're going to be drawn to al-Qaida again, if they were before, or anew if they were, you know, wrong place, wrong time prisoners, and that they're going to become a problem.

MARTIN: As I understand it, there is a third group of people, those who have not been cleared for release but there's not enough evidence to try them. How many are in that situation and what happens to them?

ROSENBERG: There's 46 of them. They're called the indefinite detainees, or, as we call them, the forever prisoners. People who the panels and the taskforce of the Obama administration concluded are the enemy, are dangerous but not necessarily guilty of a crime. And we're holding them kind of as war prisoners. And what happens to them is case by case they'll get review, and that they will have the opportunity to argue that they're not the enemy. And there's these parole panels just getting started in which the forever prisoner and his lawyer, if he has one, can go before a representative of the Pentagon, the Justice Department, Homeland Security, the State Department and make an argument. And they can conceivably get off that forever prisoner list but it's a long, slow process. And those are the people who they would most like to move to the United States because those are the people who will be the hardest to get out of Guantanamo any other way.

MARTIN: Do you get a sense from those who work there and work on detainee issues that this is a prison that's on its way to closing down? Is that the expectation?

ROSENBERG: No. When you go to Guantanamo - and I go about once a month - there's really no sign that this is going out of business any time soon. It's an unpopular mission. The soldiers have rotations lined up through, I don't know how many years out, and they have built a sprawling infrastructure of prison camps and dining facilities and headquarters. And you come and go and there really is no sign that anyone there thinks that this is the last month or the last year of the detention center complex.

MARTIN: Carol Rosenberg. She covers military affairs for the Miami Herald. Carol, thanks so much for talking with us.

ROSENBERG: Thank you.

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