GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AFP) – The commander of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay believes there is little chance of the controversial facility being closed in the next two years, leaving Barack Obama struggling to achieve his goal of shuttering the jail before he leaves office.
Camp commander colonel David Heath told reporters he thought it was “unrealistic” to expect the prison to close during his two-year posting which ends in mid-2016.
The closure of the prison, set up to hold detainees from President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 “War on Terror,” was a prominent part of Obama’s election campaign in 2008.
Yet attempts to realize his ambition have been thwarted by domestic and international obstacles, leaving the fate of the jail and its prisoners in limbo.
On Wednesday, Heath oversaw the first prisoner release since taking over as camp commander on June 24, with Kuwaiti national Fawzi al-Odah repatriated after 13 years behind bars.
“After practicing it several times, it was good to see we were able to do it,” said Heath, who notified al-Odah in person of his release, the first in five months.
A further 79 detainees who have never been charged or tried for any crime have also been approved for release by a special committee.
Around a dozen more prisoners could be released in the coming few months, a US Department of Defence official told AFP.
Heath maintained that of the 148 prisoners held in Guantanamo, some for close to 13 years without charge or trial, he considers “many” are classified as enemies of the United States.
Heath insists he does not have a strong view on the future of Guantanamo.
“I really don’t have an opinion on whether the facility should close or not,” he said.
“President Obama wants to close it and when that day comes we’ll execute that order.”
But Heath admitted he was skeptical that the camp could close before his posting ends in June 2016, just seven months before Obama’s successor is sworn in.
“I think that’s an unrealistic hope,” Heath said. “I’ll run it the best I can until either I’m told to close it or I leave in 2016.”
Nearly 13 years after the arrival of the first wave of detainees at Guantanamo, the facility is unique in that it mixes together prisoners different categories in its Camp 5 and Camp 7 wings.
“We’re unique here in that we have those who are cleared for release, conditional detention based on security condition and then we have continued law of war detention,” Heath explained.
“In a perfect world, I would have more facilities for each category of detention.”