The Pentagon can't protect Guantanamo prisoners from COVID-19, senators say

Elizabeth Howe
August 18, 2020 - 2:09 pm
Guantanamo Bay Prisoner

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Democratic Senators are citing COVID-19 as the lastest reason that Guantanamo Bay should be closed. 

Eleven Senators first sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in May asking for information regarding the facility's ability to provide medical care to detainees impacted by COVID-19 and protect the personnel operating the facility from the virus.

Guantanamo reported its first COVID-19 cases at the beginning of the pandemic in March. 

Specifically, the Senators wanted information on procedures in place to confirm possible COVID-19 cases, whether independent medical experts are available, and the status of the Pentagon's appointment of a chief medical officer at Guantanamo, as required by the National Defense Authorization Act.

The DoD's response came from Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Matthew Donovan -- and it left "doubts," the senators said this week. In lieu of answering the specific questions posed by lawmakers, Donovan wrote that the facility has been following a "detailed COVID-19 contingency and mitigation plan."

"The Pentagon's response leaves doubts about the Guantanamo prison's capacity to protect military personnel and detainees from COVID-19 and is a reminder that the United States should work to responsibly close this facility that is inconsistent with our values, does not make us safer, and wastes taxpayer dollars," the group of lawmakers said in a statement this week after receiving DoD's response. 

The Obama administration's attempts to close the facility at Guantanamo Bay -- while significantly decreasing the number of detainees housed there -- ultimately failed.

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The facility, which used to contain 800 or so detainees, now houses 40. Those 40, however, include "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," the senators wrote. 

The eleven lawmakers include Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services; Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services; Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Senator 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.; Chris Coons, D-Del.; Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; and Tom Carper, D-Del.


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