The Corona Virus has not spared the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where legal proceedings have come to a standstill due to the pandemic.
Court hearings have been cancelled since mid-March, and are now scheduled to start again in late July.
The delay has critics of Guantánamo saying this is a chance to shut it down for good, while supporters of the base argue that, despite its problems, the institutional role for trying enemy combatants is an important one for the defending the country.
Only 40 prisoners remain in the detention facility, with age ranges between 48 and 73 — the Corona Virus is lending another reason for the delay in dealing with terrorists that have been detained there for years.
Guantanamo was mired in questions for years; its location on Cuba, compliance with Geneva norms for treating enemy combatants, plus the delays in prisoners actually reaching trial. Even as candidate, former U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to close the facility, though he never did.
Since it’s opening, the site has cost taxpayers more than $6 billion.
One of the prisoners is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks. Jury selection for the Sept 11 trial was set to begin in January 2021 — 20 years since the crime. Recent departures of key personnel are even making this time frame hard to keep.
The judge for the Sept 11 case, Air Force Col. W. Shane Cohen, left in April, taking an early retirement. He spent less than a year on the job. Head of the military court, Christian Reismeier, moved to a different court role. Two other lead attorneys for the Sept. 11 prisoners also left.
Cohen set the date of Jan. 11, 2021 to begin military jury selection for the trial. This is the first time that a judge in the case actually set a start-of-trial date. If the case proceeds against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other men, it would be the “definitive trial tied to the Sept. 11 attacks.” So far only foot soldiers of Al Qaeda have been tried at GITMO. Many of those convictions have been overturned.
As for the pandemic, two cases of the Corona Virus have been reported art GITMO. One case was diagnosed in a sailor on the US naval base on the island. The other case is within the guard force that manages the prisoners.
For security reasons, the Department of Defense isn’t disclosing if any additional positive diagnoses were reported.
Health safety measures are in effect, with social distancing and wearing masks and gloves mandatory when near the prisoners.
Court hearings, themselves, are also problematic, as anyone that arrives on the island of Guantánamo must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. When returning to the U.S., any visitor must also quarantine for 14 days, creating at least a 30 day commitment for the trip.