By Brian Itami, NSJ Staff Editor –
It is increasingly likely that the U.S. government will use military commissions to help bring about the closure of its detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and to help resolve the question of what to do with the prison’s remaining detainees. As reported by the Washington Post on March 5th, President Obama’s advisers plan to recommend that Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) and four accomplices be tried before a military tribunal, a little over a month after the Department of Justice withdrew charges from a military court in preparation for a transfer to the Southern District of New York. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stated that no decision had been made, but noted “security and logistical concerns” around holding trials in Manhattan. After the transfer of a Palestinian detainee to Spain in February, 188 detainees remain in Guantanamo. More than a year after President Obama’s call for the closing of Guantanamo, the task force reviewing the detainees’ cases recommended the prosecution of 35 of the remaining detainees in military or civilian courts, the transfer or release of 110 prisoners, and the indefinite detention of 53 more. Of the 110 detainees slated for repatriation or transfer, there are approximately 30 Yemenis, who would only be released upon an improvement of security conditions in their home state.
Despite the remaining questions about the current detainees, some elements of the President’s plan to close Guantanamo have become clearer. As stated in a December 15, 2009 letter signed by five senior officials, the Obama administration intends to purchase the Thompson Correctional Center in Illinois to house the remaining detainees being held in Guantanamo. While there is no timeline as of yet for the relocation of the detainees, the letter noted that the prison would first be renovated to exceed the security measures currently in place at the federal “Supermax” facility in Colorado. Any transfers to the United States also would have to overcome the Congressional prohibition on relocation. Keeping the KSM case in a military court is expected to help secure Republican support for the closure of Guantanamo, and the Obama administration has engaged in negotiations with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in an attempt to produce a politically viable solution. The letter further explained that going forward, the government intends to conduct both military commissions and trials in federal courts.
The Administration’s proposals have raised concerns from those on both sides of the aisle. Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, objected to the idea of indefinite detentions, stating, “There is no statutory regime in America that allows us to hold people without charge or trial indefinitely.” Similarly, Amnesty International issued a strong rebuke to the rumored decision, writing, “Each day that passes without accountability, remedy and resolution of detainee cases in line with U.S. human rights and humanitarian law obligations compounds the damage done to the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights already wrought by actions taken by the USA in the name of ‘countering terrorism’ over recent years.”
At the same time, Senator Graham has been an outspoken critic of the Administration’s plans to close Guantanamo, stating in a February interview, “I’m trying to create a system that will allow us to fight this war within our values, capture enemy prisoners, find out what they know about enemy operations, keep them off the battlefield, then decide what system to put them into, military or civilian, but always focused on the fact that we’re at war. I will help this administration, but we will never be able to close Guantanamo Bay going down the road they have chosen. The American people don’t understand putting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court in New York.” Graham also noted the 20% recidivism rate amongst former Guantanamo detainees as a reason to question both the release of prisoners and his own confidence in Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan.
For information about the current Guantanamo detainees, see this Washington Post graph of the declining number of detainees since 2002 as well as the current composition of those remaining.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press, via the Guardian