The 250 detainees at the US Guantanamo war-on-terror prison could see their living conditions improve under US president-elect Barack Obama, but he has yet to say how he might change the controversial military tribunals created to try them.
David Cynamon, who has represented four of the detainees at Guantanamo, said he was not sure they would be overly excited by the election of Obama, who pledged to shut down the US Navy-run prison in a US enclave in Cuba, set up in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks.
“I will tell them that this is a very hopeful development,” he said as he planned to visit his clients next week. “But they have been so beaten down during the past seven years that I don’t know whether they will allow themselves to agree. They will be surprised, because they were convinced that a black man could never become president in the US.”
Civil liberties activists who have strongly denounced the Guantanamo prison all applauded the election of the progressive Democrat to replace US President George W. Bush, whose administration set up the prison in 2002. Guantanamo’s population reached some 800 prisoners at one point, and most of those who have passed through its doors have never been charged. Critics said the detainees were denied basic rights, and they have cheered Obama’s pledge to abide by constitutional principles with regard to the detainees.
John Podesta, the head of the transition team preparing Obama’s assumption of power on Jan. 20, acknowledged last week that Obama “has said that he intends to close the facility at Guantanamo.”
But he said it was “a complicated matter” and the incoming government’s position was “under review.”
Still, the Pentagon has already begun researching alternative sites on US soil where a high-security prison could be set up, said Sandra Hodgkinson, US assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs.
They could not simply be dumped in federal prisons with other convicts, because of a legal prohibition against housing enemy fighters with convicted criminals, she said.
One plan to transfer the detainees into a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas was not well-received locally, sparking worries that prisoners the government called dangerous terrorists might escape, and that the prison could be targeted for attack.
Hodgkinson suggested that with reinforced security measures, worries could be eased.
The new prison would not necessarily house all 250 prisoners still at Guantanamo. Among them were some 60 the Pentagon regarded as “transferrable,” meaning they could be released to their home country or a third country in the near future.
Moreover, the detainees were all now contesting their detentions in front of a US federal court, after a ruling in June permitted the challenge. If the court judges that any are held without cause, they could be freed.
But some rights activists oppose replacing Guantanamo with another high-security prison inside the country’s borders.
“I don’t think it would solve anything to close down Guantanamo but to reopen it inside the US under a different name,” said Jameel Jaffer of American Civil Liberties Union.
But, he said, “I think that closing [Guantanamo] is an important step in bringing the US back into line with its Constitution and with international law.”
For him, Guantanamo’s closure needed to be accompanied by an overhaul of the special military tribunals established for detainees, which critics said deny fundamental US rights for defendants.
While so far only some 20 prisoners have been formally charged, including five men accused of helping organize the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pentagon envisages eventually trying some 60 to 80 for “war crimes” under the special tribunals.
So far Obama’s team is keeping its views on the special tribunals secret, though they denied rumors that they would create new “national security” tribunals.
Meanwhile, among a slew of executive orders Obama was said to be drafting, observers believed one may lift a ban on US funding for overseas family planning groups that dare mention abortion.
“I think there’s a very good likelihood that he will lift the ‘global gag rule,’” said Steven Mosher, head of the pro-life, non-profit Population Research Institute.
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