Guantanamo Review Hearings Stalled. Again.

The Guantanamo Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearings—established to review the cases of detainees slated for indefinite detention without charge or trial—have effectively stalled. The PRB hearings should be an important part of the Obama administration’s effort to close the prison, but have been neglected as dozens of detainees eligible for hearings continue to wait. Having assessed only 19 detainees since 2013, the PRB won’t hold another hearing until December, and no others are scheduled.

President Obama created the interagency PRB process by executive order in 2011 to review whether detainees slated for indefinite detention actually pose a “continuing significant threat” to the United States. These 50 detainees are stuck in legal limbo. Most have been at the prison for over a decade.

The president’s executive order specified that all initial reviews would be finished by March 2012, but the hearings didn’t start until 2013, and 45 detainees have not yet had any review hearing. At the rate the hearings are proceeding, they would not be completed until the year 2020.

The solution is to hold hearings on a regular basis. It can be done; since July the PRB held hearings twice a month. This was still too slow, but an improvement nonetheless. Now, without explanation, the hearings are halted until December, with no indication that they will continue on a regular basis.

Of the 19 detainees who have had PRB reviews, 16 have received decisions, and 14 have been cleared for release. This means that all relevant U.S. government agencies (including the State, Defense, and Homeland Security Departments, Director of National Intelligence, and Joint Chiefs of Staff) have determined that these detainees no longer pose an unmanageable threat to the United States.

If the pace of the hearings improves, the rest of the eligible detainees could easily be reviewed in a timely way, even before President Obama leaves office. The PRB would likely clear some of them for release, reducing the prison’s population and freeing men who have never been charged with a crime. But the interagency process has held up PRB hearings, initially understaffing them, and now slowing the hearings to a trickle.

Last month, in response to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s concerns about Guantanamo, the U.S. delegation replied “that it holds individuals [at Guantanamo] no longer than necessary to mitigate the threat they pose.” With the last formal review for many of these detainees being the Obama Administration’s 2010 Guantanamo Task Force report and the lackluster pace of the PRB hearings, this answer is unconvincing. The international community, including many allies and countries the United States wants to respect human rights, likely sees it that way too.

The detainees designated for indefinite detention remain a major impediment for President Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo. His plan to bring at least some of the group to a prison in the United States faces opposition. Many of these detainees are likely not an unmanageable threat to the United States.

The PRB hearings not only give detainees a chance to have their indefinite imprisonment reevaluated (possibly one of the few chances they’ll get), but they are also a crucial step towards decreasing the population of Guantanamo, making it easier to close the prison—a goal of national security leaders and many who helped establish the facility.

At the moment, President Obama is poised to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which includes harsh restrictions on his ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo. Vetoing the bill because of these restrictions would send a clear signal that he is prioritizing shuttering the prison. Ordering the Defense Department to jumpstart the PRB process would do the same.

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Published on October 7, 2015

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