A Brief History of Gitmo

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Brennan Linsley / AP

A Guantanamo guard watches over detainees, not pictured, in the exercise area at Camp 5 maximum-security facility in Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba.

"As President, I will close Guantánamo," Barack Obama promised in 2007. Now, as President-elect, shutting down the infamous prison camp he referred to as a "sad chapter in American history" is shaping up as one of his first priorities.

Guantánamo Bay has been seeped in controversy for the greater part of the century. Located on the southeastern tip of Cuba, it is the only U.S base located in a communist country. The 45-square-mile site was originally used as a coaling station for U.S. Navy ships, under a lease drawn up in 1903. U.S. possession of Guantánamo was reaffirmed under former Cuban president Batista in 1934 with a provision that the lease could not be terminated without mutual consent — a provision that was challenged to no avail by Fidel Castro following the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The denial of his request to return the land to Cuba by President Eisenhower paved the way for escalated tensions between the two countries; Fidel later called it "a knife stuck in the heart of Cuba's dignity and sovereignty."

Despite Cuban disdain for the base, it received some international praise and recognition in the early 1990s when it became a vital haven for Haitian refugees fleeing the violent coup that ravaged their country. However, these glory days have been outshone by its current role as a detention center. Since early 2002, the beginning of the U.S.-led War on Terror, the base has been used to house those suspected of terrorist activity or of having ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Deemed "enemy combatants" by the U.S. Government, the hundreds of detainees currently being held in Gitmo (as the base is known) were considered ineligible for the normal legal process that U.S. prisoners are entitled to, and unprotected by the prisoner of war statutes of the Geneva Convention by virtue of being alleged combatants of a "foreign terrorist group" rather than belonging to a standing foreign army. President Bush's passage of the Military Commissions Act in 2006 authorized the use of military tribunals in place of federal courts to try the detainees, and justified the use of some forms of physical coercion (or, as critics call it, torture) during interrogations. The physical treatment and legal contortions sparked international outcry from the United Nations, human rights organizations and the Cuban government, which complained that the territory was being used as a "concentration camp". A U.S. Supreme Court ruling later that year blocked the tribunals and allowed prisoners to petition for habeas corpus in a federal court.

Of the 775 people detained in Guantánamo since its establishment, many were found to be noncombatants with no ties to either the Taliban or al-Qaeda, many of them mistakenly apprehended or wrongfully turned over by anti-Taliban bounty hunters in Afghanistan. Only around 250 prisoners remain in Gitmo, the majority of whom have either already been cleared or are expected to be cleared of charges due to lack of evidence.

However, all signs point to the fact that the process of closing Guantánamo once and for all will be exactly that — a process. Housing the remaining detainees on the U.S. mainland to await trial is fraught with issues of its own, including a debate over what type of court would be best equipped to handle such cases, the technical aspects of repatriating and releasing any prisoners cleared of guilt and the question of how or whether to try suspects against whom evidence has been gathered through torture or classified means.

Either way, it is clear that he will have to come up with a solution quickly. "Guantánamo Bay, for most people, is a lightning rod for everything that's wrong with the United States," says Scott Silliman, a law professor at Duke University and director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security. "I'm not sure Obama would be able to back away from his campaign pledge."