US Military Prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Image Credit: AFP

Twenty years ago, the United States turned a relic of the Cold War in the Caribbean into a camp where those who were swept up in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, America’s War on Terror and its invasion of Afghanistan could be indefinitely detained.

And 20 years on, the prisons at Guantanamo Bay remain open despite the pledges of three US presidents to shut it down.

That was secretive US military base — once hidden behind the most heavily mined defences in the world — is an enclave on the island of Cuba, a place far from prying eyes, where military commanders could follow orders to detain and torture the detainees, even force feed them should they attempt to starve themselves as an exercise of individual rights.

The camp was selected, a location where the rights normally afforded to prisoners of war could be forgotten. Even the new legal status afforded to the prisoners — they were “enemy combatants” who were classified as “detainees” — underscored the thinking of its creators. And two decades on, no prisoner there has been convicted on any crime through the unconstitutional tribunals created to bring those held there to account.

For all of the smoke and mirrors, the secrets, the veneer of due legal process, Guantanamo Bay is but a prison where crimes against those held there have occurred, where torture took place, and it remains a black mark against the US record on human rights.

From the chain-link cubicles quickly built in a week, the camp evolved into high security prison complex comparable to the so-called supermax prisons in the US — but the prisoners in America have been convicted under due process, have had every legal defence provided to them, and weren’t waterboarded to provide incriminating statements.

Almost 800 men were held at the camp, today 39 remain. One-third of those still left there have been cleared for release, yet there is no country willing to take them.

Legal tribunals have been ongoing for a decade in an attempt to convict some accused masterminding the 9/11 attacks or other high-profile international terrorist atrocities. But those “trials” are mired in legal complexities as jurists face the reality of abuse and immoral detention and torture.

Twenty years on, the US has left Afghanistan. How galling then that Guantanamo Bay still holds men from that conflict?