Biden Must Succeed Where Obama Failed, and Finally Close Guantanamo | Opinion

Twelve years ago this month, I sat in my cell in the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, staring at one of the most beautiful photographs I had ever seen: Barack Obama, inaugurated as President of the United States the day before, signing an Executive Order to close Guantanamo within a year. Then-Vice President Joe Biden praised the order, saying "We will uphold the rights of those we bring to justice, and we will close the detention facility at Guantanamo."

In Guantanamo, I can tell you, everyone took this news seriously. The Joint Task Force that runs the prison gave each detainee a copy of the president's order. High-ranking officers toured the camp and spoke with many detainees. An Air Force captain and a four-star Navy Admiral sat and talked with me, assuring me that the camp's dark days of inhumane treatment were coming to an end.

As a then-young African, I was stunned. A young black man, the son of an African immigrant, had been elected to the highest office of the most powerful country in the world. I was swept up in the pro-American fervor that seemed to be spreading everywhere. Inside GTMO, detainees who the day before had been cursing the country were now rooting for Team America. Around the world, whole countries were doing the same. "Gute Wahl," Good Election, the headline of a German tabloid read. I wasn't allowed to read the article itself back then, but later learned it went on to say, "Everyone has now fallen freshly in love with the new America, the other America, the good America, Obamerica, even."

That was twelve years ago.

Guantanamo remains open today.

When President Obama signed that order, I had been imprisoned without charge or trial for seven years, tortured, and taken to the very limits of human endurance. Even after all that, I was willing to give the U.S. government the benefit of the doubt. I believed it would do the right thing and close the symbol of torture and indefinite detention, once and for all. Yet when a federal judge granted my habeas corpus petition and ordered me set free in 2010, the Obama administration appealed that decision, and it would be another seven years before an Administrative Review Board in Guantanamo took up my case and approved my release.

It was only later that same year, in the very last days of Obama's presidency, that I was finally reunited with my family—minus my mother and an older brother, who both died during my detention.

For the past four years I have struggled, and am still struggling, to overcome a travel ban the United States imposed as a condition of my release and regain my full freedom. But I have been able to marry, start a family, work on a new edition and a movie version of my book, and be a part of helping to build a better future for my country and the world.

It tells you everything you need to know about Guantanamo that I count myself among the lucky ones. According to a newly-released report by Amnesty International, forty men are still imprisoned there. Six of these men, like me, were cleared for release. The vast majority of these forty men have never been, and will not be, charged or tried for any crimes. Every day I am haunted by the thought of Abdel Latif Nasser, who is from my neighbor country of Morocco and who remains imprisoned although he was cleared for release, like me, in 2016, and all the other forgotten souls in Guantanamo.

Last week, I watched as an angry mob overran the U.S. Capitol, trying to overturn the results of a presidential election. I watched as one after another American commentator and legislator expressed horror and shock as they spoke about the rule of law. I shared their horror, but not so much their shock. The political evolution leading up to that moment has been long in the making, and I knew that even from my cell in Guantanamo.

In the months before Barack Obama was elected president, I had a guard who kept me posted on the progress of the Democratic party's nominee, a man he told me was supposedly a Muslim, who had even sworn his oath of office on the Quran when he was elected to the Senate. He would bring me fresh reports every day about the alleged dangers of this Black candidate. Behind these stories was an insinuation that the man had not been born in the United States and was not an American. A few months after I was released, the best-known proponent of that "birther" conspiracy theory succeeded Obama as president. To no one's surprise, President Trump vowed not just to keep Guantanamo open, but to expand it. What he ended up doing was arguably even worse: he ignored it completely, as if the lives of the men still held there, and the thousands of U.S. servicewomen and servicemen whose careers are being wasted guarding them, meant nothing at all.

In two weeks, the United States will have a new president, and another chance to repair the terrible error Guantanamo represents. Because he was the vice president in an administration that tried but failed to close Guantanamo, President Biden will carry a special burden of that error into office. If the Obama administration had closed Guantanamo, many others would have been able to spend the years of the Trump presidency rebuilding their lives. Years of additional suffering would have been avoided.

But it wasn't President Obama and Vice President Biden alone who failed to close Guantanamo twelve years ago. It was Congress, too, which fought efforts to close Guantanamo tooth and nail. It was the American people, who did not hold Obama's feet to the fire and stand up for the rule of law.

Today, many in the United States are talking about the importance of the abiding by the rule of law. When President Biden takes office, he and the American people can put these words into action by closing Guantanamo at last.

Mohamedou Ould Salahi is a human rights activist and The New York Times-bestselling author of the book Guantanamo Diary. He was detained in Guantanamo Bay from 2002-2016 and never charged with any crime.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.