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November 11, 2008

First, Close Gitmo,
Say Rights Groups

by Jim Lobe

President-elect Barack Obama should make the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility a top priority when he takes office Jan. 20, U.S. and international human rights groups said Monday.

They are also calling for the abolition of the military commissions that have begun trying suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo, and for them to be transferred to the federal courts where due-process protections will enhance the chances for a fair trial.

"There is no room for patience or delay in these areas," said Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of several groups that have been deeply involved in litigation over the fate of the Guantanamo detainees.

"We hope that President-elect Obama, as soon as he is sworn in, will take bold action and sign an executive order closing Guantanamo and ending the sham military commissions there. It is time to restore American values of justice, due process, and human rights," he added.

Five other groups are urging European governments to accept those Guantanamo prisoners. There are at least 50 at the moment who will not be charged with any crime but can't be returned to their home countries for fear they will be detained and tortured there.

"President-elect Obama has committed to closing Guantanamo, but he is going to need Europe's help," said Joanne Mariner, director of the Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), on behalf of Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Reprieve, and Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), as well as HRW.

"European governments could provide much-needed assistance by agreeing to take in some of the detainees who cannot be sent back home," she stressed.

Since the first terrorist suspects – or what then-Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld memorably described as "the worst of the worst" – were delivered there from Afghanistan on Jan. 11, 2002, a total of 775 people, ranging in age from 13 to 98, have been detained at the Guantanamo base, according to statistics compiled by the ACLU.

The vast majority of those detainees, it now appears, were innocent of terrorist activities and had been rounded up by tribal militias and bounty hunters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite their innocence, many of the prisoners were subject to "aggressive interrogation techniques" – which human rights groups have denounced as torture – and other abusive treatment before and during their stay. It has made Guantanamo, along with the mistreatment documented by photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a global symbol of the excesses of Bush's "war on terror" and the loss of Washington's moral standing.

At least four prisoners committed suicide while in detention, and hundreds participated in periodic hunger strikes to protest the conditions under which they were being held.

More than 500 prisoners have since been released, the vast majority of them to their home countries, some under the condition that the receiving country would detain or place them under surveillance.

As of last week, the Pentagon, which has jurisdiction over the base, said there were currently "about 255" prisoners, more than 60 of whom have been cleared for release or transfer but who remain in limbo due to difficulties in negotiating satisfactory agreements with their home nations, according to a New York Times investigative study.

The study also reported that 34 of the remaining detainees were seized in raids in Pakistan in which three major al-Qaeda operatives were also captured; 16 others are accused of past terrorist attacks on U.S. targets before 9/11; and yet 20 more have been identified as former bodyguards of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

Military commissions set up by the Pentagon to try terrorist suspects have suffered repeated setbacks not only by the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, that have found that they failed to comply with basic due process rights guaranteed by the U.S. and the Geneva Conventions, but also by aggressive challenges on the part of defense attorneys and even prosecutors to the commissions' procedures and rules of evidence, including the use of testimony obtained through torture.

Indeed, six years after they were authorized, the military commissions have so far obtained only two convictions, the most recent just last week.

During his presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly noted how much Washington's image abroad as a leader of human rights and an exemplar of the rule of law had suffered as a result of Guantanamo, which he called a "sad chapter in American history," and he repeatedly pledged to close it.

He and his advisers have also strongly criticized the military commissions and suggested that those detainees against whom there was credible evidence of terrorist activity should be tried by the federal courts, that, under some circumstances, might adopt special rules to prevent sensitive information from being made public.

Rights groups have by and large argued that the federal criminal justice system should be adequate. Last May, Human Rights First (HRF), a lawyers' group, released a review of 120 terrorism cases that concluded that the federal court system was well equipped to deal with any detainees charged with crimes.

"While commendable that the president-elect is signaling his willingness to tackle these challenges head on, how and where suspected terrorists are prosecuted is critically important to restoring America's commitment to human rights and the rule of law," said HRF director Elisa Massimino Monday. "Based on our review, Human Rights First believes that the federal criminal justice system has proven itself highly adaptable to the challenges of prosecuting complex terrorism cases."

As for the more than 50 detainees, including 17 Uighur men from Xinjiang, China, who are cleared for release but who cannot be returned home due to concerns over how they may be treated, rights groups are calling on European countries to take them in if the U.S. fails to do so.

"This is a key opportunity for both sides of the Atlantic to move beyond the misguided acts of the war on terror: rendition, secret detention, and torture," said Cori Crider, a staff attorney at Reprieve, one of whose clients was returned to Tunisia, where he was allegedly beaten and threatened with the rape of his wife and daughter.

"Europe can send a powerful message by reaching out to Obama and providing a safe alternative for these few people," she added.

"As an important strategic partner of the United States, the European Union should help the administration relocate these men," said FIDH president, Souhayr Belhassen, who noted that the Council of Europe's Human Rights commissioner, Thomas Hammerberg, had made a similar appeal.

On a recent visit to Chile, Amnesty International's Secretary General Irene Kahn told IPS correspondent Daniela Estrada in an exclusive interview that her organization had high expectations with regard to Obama's election and hoped his campaign slogan for "change" would effectively lead to a change in U.S. human rights policy and concrete measures toward that end in the international arena.

She said that she hoped the president-elect would shut down Guantanamo, make public declarations confirming the prohibition of torture and other forms of mistreatment, and guarantee an independent investigation into human rights abuses committed under the Bush administration as part of the "war on terrorism."

In addition, Kahn said Amnesty would also like the Obama administration to ratify treaties like the Rome Statue, which created the International Criminal Court, and to play a constructive role in the United Nations Human Rights Council.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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