May 28, 2020

Warren, Reed, Colleagues Seek Information on DoD Efforts to Prevent COVID-19 Outbreaks at Guantanamo Bay Prison

Lawmakers are concerned that positive COVID-19 cases among Guantanamo personnel combined with chronically ill detainees create heightened health risks for all

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, and Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, along with Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), and Tom Carper (D-Del.), sent a letter to Department of Defense (DoD) Secretary Mark Esper requesting additional information about the Department’s efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic among detainees in the prison facility at the United States Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Guantanamo), as well as efforts to protect servicemembers responsible for detention operations and all other military personnel at the base. The senators sent their letter after reports of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among U.S. personnel at Guantanamo in March and April.   

“Given the incidence of COVID-19 at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, the serious and deteriorating health conditions of detainees, the deficient infrastructure to care for complex medical needs at the prison facility,  and the strict prohibition on detainee transfers to the United States – even temporary transfers for urgent medical reasons – we are concerned that our military personnel responsible for detention operations, as well as the detainees themselves, are at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 and suffering severe health consequences,” the lawmakers wrote.

Of their concerns, the lawmakers specifically cite the lack of comprehensive medical infrastructure on the premises and question whether current DoD coronavirus infection control efforts will be enough to protect the health of the 40 detainees at the Guantanamo prison facility, including aging and chronically ill detainees, some of whom retain the mental and physical wounds of torture and may be at greater risk of serious medical complications from COVID-19. 

Another complicating factor raised by the senators is current U.S. law’s strict prohibition on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees off the base to other U.S. territory. Although the Senate adopted an amendment to a version of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have permitted temporary detainee transfers to DoD medical facilities in the United States for “emergency or critical medical treatment,” this provision was not included in the final law. The lawmakers observed that this restriction on detainee transfers prevents the United States from securely resettling or repatriating Guantanamo detainees, and in effect, prevents the fair adjudication of cases against any remaining detainees under U.S. domestic criminal law. 

“Congress and the Trump Administration should work together to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, which represents a ‘legal black hole’ for detainees and reportedly costs $540 million per year to operate, or $13 million per prisoner. In the meantime, we seek to ensure that our detention operations serve the best interest of the health and safety of everyone on base,” concluded the lawmakers.

The letter is supported by the following organizations: Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Amnesty International, Win Without War, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and Common Defense.

The lawmakers have requested a response to their letter no later than June 10, 2020.