After trip to Cuba, Tester says it's time to close Guantanamo

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

With an annual cost of roughly $2 million per detainee, the 13-year-old Guantanamo Bay Detention Center needs to be closed, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont, said Monday.

Tester, who toured Guantanamo late last week, said then the subject comes up later this year, he will push to close the facility, where the Department of Defense houses 155 detainees, many without trial, some since Jan. 11, 2002 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.

“Depends on who you want to talk to, but each one of those detainees costs $1.4 million to $2.5 million.” Tester said.

Shuttering the facility could come up this summer or fall as part of the Defense Authorization Act.

Tester toured Guantanamo Bay on Saturday as part of a two-day visit to Cuba, with Sens., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

The senators also met with American Alan Gross, who has been jailed in Cuba since 2010 for setting up unrestricted Internet access for Jewish groups. Cuba considered Gross’ actions subversive and sentenced the Marylander to 15 years detention. Gross’ family has asked President Barack Obama to make the case for Gross’ release.

Obama in his State of the Union address three weeks ago urged Congress to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Five years ago, Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanamo, but Congress passed restrictions on transferring detainees, which stifled efforts to draw down the prison population.

But Armed Services committees in the House and Senate in December agreed on a plan that made it easier to draw down the prison population. Both Montana Sens. Tester and Max Baucus supported that plan.

“What they did in December was, Congress passed a new law that makes it easier to pass detainees back to foreign countries,” said Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel in the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington, D.C., office.

The ACLU has for years argued against the detention of Guantanamo prisoners. There are 77 detainees who have been cleared for release but remain imprisoned. Another 45 detainees are considered by the federal government to be too dangerous to release, but government also says it doesn’t have enough evidence to prosecute the men.

The 155 are what remains of the 779 held at the facility since it opened in 2002.

President George W. Bush released 532 prisoners during his tenure. Obama has released 89. Roughly 92 percent of the detainees were not classified as al-Qaida fighters.

Anders said the ACLU is lobbying for the release of the detainees already cleared to go and trials for the detainees that have not been cleared.

During the Havana part of the delegation visit, Tester and the others met with Gross.

Tester said Gross has lost about 120 pounds during his imprisonment.

Tester said Gross’ mother is 91, and the American would like to get home before she dies. Apparently, there has been some talk of a prisoner exchange, which would return Gross to the United States and deliver to the island nation three Cubans imprisoned for spying in the United States.

Tester said there was also talk with Cuban officials about the Cuban trade embargo launched in 1960 after the Cuban Revolution ushered Fidel Castro’s communist government into power. There is talk in the United States of easing the embargo and lawmakers from farm states see an opportunity for trade if that occurs.

Tester said the rule of Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, could present the best opportunity for normalizing relations with Cuba without presenting a threat to the Fidel Castro legacy. But Raul Castro is old and the opportunity might not last forever.

“Raul is 83 years old and in very good health. He’s one of the few people who could do this from a Cuban perspective,” Tester said.