US President Barack Obama has forcefully declared his support for US civilian trials of Guantanamo detainees, pledging to overturn language in a sweeping defence bill that would effectively block such trials anytime soon.
“The prosecution of terrorists in federal court is a powerful tool in our efforts to protect the nation and must be among the options available to us,” the president said. “Any attempt to deprive the executive branch of that tool undermines our nation’s counter-terrorism efforts and has the potential to harm our national security.”
Obama made the comments even while signing the legislation, which also allows funding for a wide range of military and national security programmes that the president said were too important to dispense with.
The law prohibits the use of Defence Department dollars to transfer suspected terrorists held at the US Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States, where they could be tried in civilian court. That effectively prevents any such transfer during the period covered by the legislation – the 2011 fiscal year that runs through September.
The language reflects deep concerns in Congress and the country about Guantanamo detainees being tried on US soil. The first Guantanamo detainee tried in federal court was acquitted in November on all but one of more than 280 charges that he took part in the al-Qaida bombings of two US embassies in Africa. That case ignited strident opposition to any further such trials.
Another case is that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, who had been slotted for trial in New York before Obama bowed to political resistance and blocked the Justice Department’s plans.
But Obama said the provision blocking the transfer of detainees amounted to “a dangerous and unprecedented challenge to critical executive branch authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees”.
The legislation also blocks Guantanamo detainees from being transferred to foreign countries except under very narrow circumstances, a provision Obama also said he opposed. Critics contend that detainees who’ve been returned home or shipped to other countries may return to terrorism and threaten the US.
Guantanamo has been a major political and national security headache for Obama, who vowed upon taking office to close the prison within a year, a deadline that came and went without the president ever setting a new one. Administration officials are currently drafting an executive order to set up a review process for detainees held indefinitely at Guantanamo, those who are considered too dangerous to be released but face a high bar to prosecution because of problems with the evidence against them.
About 170 detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay following the recent release of a prisoner back to his native Algeria over the objections of his attorneys, who said he feared being tortured in his homeland. But given the make-up of the new GOP-heavy Congress and the public’s concerns, it will be difficult for Obama to fulfil his promise to repeal or limit the new detainee transfer provisions he opposes.