/ 14 January 2009

Closing Guantánamo ‘an Obama priority’

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as the new United States president could be to order the closure of the controversial ”war on terror” detention camp in the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Obama, who takes office on January 20 and promised during the presidential campaign to close the site, will likely shutter Guantánamo by issuing an executive order suspending President George Bush’s military commissions system for trying detainees, Obama transition officials told US media.

However, it could take several months to fully close down the detention camp, as US officials will have to transfer some of the 248 prisoners there to other countries and then decide whether to try the remaining suspects.

The site, established in early 2002 following the US-led offensive in Afghanistan, was designed to hold suspected terrorists who the Bush administration claimed were not covered by the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners of war because they were ”enemy combatants”, fighting for a non-state organisation.

Over the years about 800 detainees have gone through Guantánamo, including 520 transferred to other countries to be held or released.

Of the remaining inmates, only about 20 have been charged, including five men accused of helping organise the September 11 2001 attacks in the US.

About 60 prisoners deemed no longer a threat have been cleared for transfer or release, but their home countries have been reluctant to take them.

Unclear is the fate of Omar Khadr, a Canadian captured in Afghanistan in 2002 at age 15 and charged with killing a US soldier with a hand grenade. His trial is due to open on January 26, six days after Obama takes office.

Obama acknowledged in a Sunday television interview that it would be ”a challenge” to close the site in his first 100 days in office.

Closing down Guantánamo ”is more difficult than I think a lot of people realise,” Obama said in an interview aired Sunday on ABC’s ”This Week” programme.

Outgoing Vice-President Dick Cheney criticised the Guantánamo closure plans in a radio interview on Tuesday.

”People forget is that we’ve got a couple hundred very bad actors down there,” Cheney told conservative talk show host William Bennet.

”We’ve been through, several times, a scrub of the population in Guantánamo. And a good many more have been returned than we still hold, have been returned to their home countries. Now, out of that group, some number has … gone back onto the battlefield against us.”

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said 61 detainees released from Guantánamo have returned to the fight. Of those, 18 had been confirmed as being directly involved in ”terrorist activities”.

War crimes specialist Jonathan Drimmer at the Georgetown University Law Centre is convinced that Guantánamo will be closed by the end of Obama’s first year in office.

”Most likely, he will do it with the cooperation of other nations, where in exchange for his pledge to close Guantánamo other countries will accept most of the prisoners being held,” Drimmer told AFP.

Few experts, however, believe that trying the remaining suspects in a special national security court, a possible third option, could work as it would take a long time just to set up the new system.

Drimmer believes that ”a small set of prisoners, the worst of the worst,” would likely be transferred to the US ”for trials in traditional civilian or military courts”.

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that a Saudi suspected of involvement in the September 11 attacks was tortured at Guantánamo.

Susan Crawford, the Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantánamo detainees to trial, told the Post that the suspect cannot be tried because he was tortured.

US military interrogators subjected Mohammed al-Qahtani (30) to sustained isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and prolonged exposure to cold, leaving him in a ”life-threatening condition”, Crawford told the Post.

”We tortured Qahtani,” Crawford told the newspaper. ”His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution. – Sapa-AFP