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The 40 prisoners include Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is accused of being the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks, as well as six men who have been cleared for release by an inter-agency government panel. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: The Pentagon on Saturday halted plans to offer coronavirus vaccines next week to the 40 wartime prisoners at Guantanamo Bay after an outcry over whether the Defense Department was putting terrorism suspects before the American people.

John Kirby, a department spokesperson, announced the reversal on Twitter, noting that none of the detainees had been vaccinated. A delay, he said, would let officials “assess the impact on force protection to our troops, and that’s always going to be the first priority.”

The 40 prisoners include Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is accused of being the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks, as well as six men who have been cleared for release by an interagency government panel.

The disclosure by The New York Times on Thursday of the plan to administer vaccines to Guantanamo prisoners incited a sharp backlash, particularly given the slow start of the vaccine rollout in the United States.

Most states have started vaccinating older adults, but people across the country have expressed frustration over vaccine shortages, long lines and cancelled appointments.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the top House Republican, chimed in on Twitter Saturday to criticise the Pentagon’s initial proposal. “President Biden told us he would have a plan to defeat the virus on day 1,” he wrote. “He just never told us that it would be to give the vaccine to terrorists before most Americans.”

The Defence Department announced the suspension several hours later.

No disclosure

About 1,500 troops serve at the detention centre in Cuba. Most of them are National Guard members who arrived during the pandemic and spent their first two weeks there in individual quarantine. But the Southern Command, which has oversight of the prison, has so far not disclosed how many of them were offered the vaccine and how many agreed to receive it.

Dr. Terry Adirim, the Pentagon’s principal deputy assistant secretary of defence for health affairs, signed a memo Wednesday that authorised vaccination of the detainees. She is a Biden administration appointee who has been serving as a senior health official at the Defence Department since July 2016.

Several hundred doses of the Moderna vaccine first arrived on the base January 7, and medical personnel received the first shots. It is not known if enough doses have reached the base to vaccinate everyone who seeks it among the 6,000 residents, who include sailors and their families, schoolteachers and contract labourers. The original plan was to begin offering vaccines to the prisoners Monday. They were to receive information over the weekend to help them decide whether to accept the shots.

Everyone commutes

Lack of vaccinations has been a major obstacle to resuming the pretrial hearings in the September 11 case, in particular because virtually everybody but the prisoners commutes to the court from across the United States, and vaccinating the prisoners, the lawyers, the judge and other court personnel has not been a priority.

On February 22, the Pentagon is preparing to hold its first arraignment at Guantanamo since 2014. Under the initial plan, the defendants in that case - Encep Nurjaman, who is known as Hambali; Mohammed Nazir Bin Lep; and Mohammed Farik Bin Amin - would have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before their first court appearance in more than 17 years of US detention.

Hambali, who is Indonesian, is held at Guantanamo as the former leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian extremist group that became an Al Qaida affiliate before the September 11 attacks. The other two men, Malaysians, are accused of being Hambali’s accomplices in the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, which killed 202 people, and the 2003 Marriott hotel bombing in Jakarta, which killed at least 11 people and wounded at least 80.

Their case had been dormant for years. Then a day after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, a senior Pentagon official who had been put in charge of the military commissions during the Trump administration approved the case for trial.

The Biden administration has yet to unveil its Guantanamo policy, although Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress during his confirmation hearing that the administration would add no new detainees to the site and would seek its closure.