50th Gitmo Detainee Review Hearing Marks Progress
This week marks the 50th Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing at the Guantanamo Bay prison. Though the PRB hearings didn’t start until 2013—two years after President Obama ordered them to—and the initial pace of the hearings was abysmally slow, the Defense Department has increased the speed of detainee hearings and vowed to complete all initial hearings by this fall.
The PRB, created by President Obama and endorsed by Congress, exists to review “whether law of war detention remains necessary to protect against a ‘continuing significant threat to the security of the United States’” for detainees previously slotted for indefinite detention (as opposed to released or tried by military commission). The PRB is made up of senior representatives of the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State; the Joint Staff; and the Office of the Director of National Security.
The PRB provides these detainees with an official hearing, and if the board finds that a detainee should continue to be held, he becomes eligible for a second hearing. Four of these second hearings (called “full hearings”) have occurred, clearing all four detainees. If the PRB decides detention is no longer necessary, the detainee is cleared for transfer pending appropriate security measures and a security agreement with a destination country.
But clearance for transfer does not mean transfer. Though 24 of the 35 detainees who have received PRB decisions have been cleared for release, only nine have actually been transferred from the prison, the last in April 2016. The remaining detainees cleared by the PRB remain stuck at Gitmo. All have been imprisoned there for more than 10 years without charge or trial. The Obama Administration needs to prioritize transferring the remaining cleared detainees.
The 80 remaining Gitmo detainees have often been portrayed as “the worst of the worst,” the most dangerous of the over-700 detainees who have been through the prison. The PRB has shown that this is not always the case, with U.S. military and intelligence agencies affirming that the cleared detainees could be released with appropriate security measures in place. Moreover, the PRB reviews have revealed that previous detainee assessments (which have been frequently cited as flawed and incorrect) have often mistakenly implicated detainees in crimes, and even confused multiple detainees for someone else more important or dangerous.
While five more hearings are scheduled for the month of June, 13 additional detainees still need hearing dates. The Obama Administration says it plans to finish all initial hearings by this fall, and this looks likely with the improved pace. But as noted above, initial hearings are not enough. Expedited releases for cleared detainees and additional reviews for indefinite detainees must happen with the same urgency.
National security leaders agree that Guantanamo must be closed, and while increasing the pace of PRB hearings is essential to making that happen, it’s just the first step.