U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Tuesday his intent to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, a proposal that Catholic bishops have long supported in principle. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would not comment on the specific details of President Obama’s plan, but the bishops have supported — and still support — the closing of the prison, a spokesman for the bishops’ conference told CNA. 

“For many years, it’s been clear that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our national security — it undermines it,” Obama stated on Tuesday morning at the White House. 

“Moreover, keeping this facility open is contrary to our values,” he added. “As Americans, we pride ourselves on being a beacon to other nations, a model of the rule of law.  But 15 years after 9/11 — 15 years after the worst terrorist attack in American history — we’re still having to defend the existence of a facility and a process where not a single verdict has been reached in those attacks.”

Obama delivered his plan for the closure of the facility to Congress, whose members will now discuss how to proceed. 

The detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was opened in 2002 as a supposedly secure way to detain terror suspects who were captured from the War in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq, and who were deemed too much of a national security threat to keep on American soil. 

Detainees were treated as “enemy combatants,” and since they belonged to a terrorist group rather than a country, the U.S. considered as complying with the Geneva Convention to hold them on non-U.S. soil and try them in a military court. Almost 800 detainees reportedly passed through Guantanamo from 2001-2008.

Human rights experts commissioned by the United Nations expressed their concern about the “interrogation techniques” at the prison in a 2006 United Nations report based on information from the U.S., former detainees and their lawyers. The techniques “amount to degrading treatment,” the experts said. 

In recent years, the U.N.’s human rights head repeatedly asked the United States to close the prison, speaking out against the prolonged detention of prisoners without trial. 

Bishops in the U.S. and at the Vatican have in the past disapproved of the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo and the conditions at the prison. 

“Detainees have the right to a just and fair trial held in a timely manner,” Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, wrote then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2013 over the situation at the prison. 

Bishop Pates cited Catholic social teaching to protest against indefinite detention in his November, 2013 letter to the U.S. Senate: 

“At the same time, our moral teaching says that the human rights of detainees must be respected and that ‘the identification of the guilty party must be duly proven.’ The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church calls for ‘trials (to be) conducted swiftly: their excessive length is becoming intolerable for citizens and results in a real injustice (No. 404).’”

After visiting the prison in 2006, Cardinal Renato Martino, the then-president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told the Italian wire news service ANSA that “it seems clear that human dignity is not being fully respected in that prison.” 

“Everyone has a right to a fair trial,” he added. “Wherever in the world inmates are being held in such conditions, without even knowing the charges they face, we will not fail to defend them.”

In December of 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Vatican and sought their help in re-settling remaining detainees. 

It is unclear where the administration intends to move the detainees — 91 in number, according to President Obama. He said Tuesday that 35 prisoners have been cleared for removal “to other countries,” and said that the administration would “work with Congress” to find a secure place in the U.S. to house the remaining prisoners. 

“Keep in mind, this process involves extensive and careful coordination across our federal government to ensure that our national security interests are met when an individual is transferred to another country,” the president said. 

The president will now have to wait for Congress to act on his proposal. Republican congressional leaders expressed their disapproval of the plan on Tuesday. 

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) criticized the plan’s lack of a specific place to re-settle the prisoners. 

“President Obama has yet to convince the American people that moving Guantanamo terrorists to our homeland is smart or safe,” he said in a statement.

The House Speaker said any proposal to place the prisoners in the U.S. was “dead on arrival.” Photo credit: Benjamin Haas via www.shutterstock.com