(REPORT) — The United States sent four detainees from the Guantanamo Bay military prison to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on Thursday, marking President Barack Obama’s final prisoner transfers from a facility whose continued existence he said would be judged harshly by history.
With Republican Donald Trump to be sworn in as president on Friday and vowing to keep the prison open, Democrat Obama whittled down the inmate population there to only 41 – far short of fulfilling his 2008 campaign promise to close the jail.
In a parting shot on an issue seen tarnishing his legacy, Obama said U.S. lawmakers who have thwarted his efforts to shut the prison at the U.S. naval base in Cuba “have abdicated their responsibility to the American people.”
“History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to bring it to a responsible end,” he said in a letter to the Republican-controlled Congress. “Once again, I encourage the Congress to close the facility.”
Despite years of promises, he decided last year not to use his power as commander-in-chief to unilaterally shutter the detention center.
Official figures reveal that nearly 800 prisoners have been held at Guantanamo since the prison opened after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Of those, more than 700 have been released or transferred and nine have died, while 41 men are still held there without internationally recognized charges or trials.
Many detainees have conducted hunger strikes to draw attention to their deteriorating conditions inside the prison. Authorities have responded with force-feeding, which human rights groups consider tantamount to torture.
During the Obama administration, most detainees have been transferred to other countries. The White House says it would like to hold a small number of detainees in U.S. prisons without civilian trials or rights to due process for national security reasons.
Cuba has repeatedly insisted that the U.S. return the occupied territory as part of the normalization of relations between the two countries that kicked off in Dec. 2014.