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January 22, 2009

Rights Groups Applaud Move to Halt Gitmo Trials

by Jim Lobe

U.S. and international human rights groups Wednesday praised President Barack Obama's directive to immediately suspend the work of military commissions established by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to prosecute suspected terrorists at the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and pressed for its earliest possible closure.

Obama's order, issued quietly several hours after he took the oath of office Tuesday, is regarded as the first in a series of steps – many of which have yet to be decided by the new administration – to fulfill his campaign promise to close the Guantánamo facility as quickly as possible.

The order was confirmed Wednesday by a military judge at Guantánamo who granted the prosecution's motion for a halt in the war crimes case against Omar Khadr, a Canadian-born prisoner alleged to have thrown a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in 2002, when he was 15 years old.

His case, which was scheduled to go to trial next Monday, had drawn protests from around the world due to bans under the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child on the prosecution of child soldiers.

The prosecutor's motion to halt the commissions' work was filed late Tuesday at the direction of the new U.S. president and the secretary of defense, Robert Gates, who is being retained in his position by Obama and who had reportedly urged Bush several times over the last two years – unsuccessfully – to close Guantánamo and its commissions.

"By suspending the military commissions, the Obama administration begins the task of denying those who would harm Americans the best recruiting tool the Bush administration ever gave them – Guantánamo," said Gabor Rona, International Legal Director of Human Rights First (HRF), a New York-based lawyers' group that has denounced the commissions' failure to provide basic due-process guarantees to those detained in Bush's "global war on terror."

"President Obama's actions sends a message that even one more day of proceedings in violation of American and international law should not occur on his watch, and, with that message, he takes an important first step toward closing Guantánamo and rehabilitating the reputation of the United States as a standard-bearer for justice, human rights, and the rule of law," he added.

That view was echoed as well by other groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and London-based Amnesty International. Amnesty said it hoped "that today's announcement is a sign that the U.S. government will reject, once and for all, the past U.S. policies that have caused so much damage to human rights the rule of law."

The group called for all pending charges against detainees under the Military Commissions Act, the 2006 law approved by Congress after the Supreme Court ruled that tribunals established earlier by the Pentagon were unconstitutional, be dismissed and that any future trials of the Guantánamo captives be conducted in U.S. federal courts.

"The Military Commissions Act – like Guantánamo, the secret detention program, and resort to torture – has left the USA on the wrong side of its international obligations," said Susan Lee, director of Amnesty's Americas program "The move to suspend the proceedings is a welcome sign that the new administration plans to right some of those wrongs as a first priority," she added.

Obama, who during his presidential campaign called Guantánamo a "sad chapter in American history," is expected to issue an order later this week directing that the detention facility, which is reportedly holding about 245 detainees, including some who have been held for seven years or more without charge, be closed as soon as possible. A draft order obtained by Associated Press Wednesday indicated that closure should take place "no later than one year from the date" on which the order will be issued.

Some groups, notably the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which has represented a large number of the detainees, have expressed dismay at such a lengthy timeframe. "It only took days to put these men in Guantánamo," said CCR director Vincent Warren. "It shouldn't take a year to get them out."

But others urged patience. The ACLU, which praised the suspension of the commission as the "the first ray of sunlight in what has been eight long years of darkness," said that while there remains "some question as to how some detainees will be released or prosecuted, we trust that's not President Obama's intent and hope that any ambiguity is due to the fact that this order was done on day one in record time."

The new administration's draft also reportedly directs the release or transfer of those remaining prisoners who are not considered threats to the United States and the prosecution of others by U.S. courts under terms that have yet to be determined by the new administration.

While rights groups have called for any prosecutions to take place in federal criminal courts that can guarantee the basic due-process rights of the defendants, other voices have urged new legislation that would permit those detainees who are considered particularly dangerous, such as alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, to be held indefinitely without trial in the United States as a form of "preventive detention."

While the latter alternative appears to have discarded by the new administration, the Justice Department faces a major problem in deciding what to do about cases where much of the evidence against the defendants may have been gained through what the Bush administration called "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding, but what rights groups – and Holder himself last week in his confirmation hearing last week – define as torture. Under U.S. criminal and constitutional law, evidence obtained through torture is not admissible at trial.

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 Guantánamo 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.

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

According to the Pentagon, there remain about 50 detainees, including 17 Chinese Uighurs, who have been cleared but who remain in limbo due to difficulties in negotiating satisfactory agreements with their home nations. Led by Portugal, some European countries have indicated greater willingness since Obama's election to accept some of the detainees who may face persecution if they are returned to the homeland than they did under Bush.

(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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