FOR THE 172 prisoners who remain incarcerated in the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay there was bitter news on Monday in the lifting by President Obama of a two-year freeze on new military trials. The announcement is a tacit and regrettable abandonment of his public commitment to close the controversial prison although sources in his administration were telling journalists that remains the president’s longer-term intention.
When Mr Obama took office, there were 242 detainees, many of them held for more than nine years – some 500 had been released by the Bush administration. Since then, the US defence department has transferred 67 detainees to 24 destinations, including 40 to third countries, most of which – like Ireland which accommodated two – have agreed to take only frustratingly small numbers.
The US insists that it has the right under the laws of war to detain combatants and to try those against whom evidence exists of crimes. However, such evidence has been tainted in many cases by the means, not least torture, by which it has been collected. This has made the prospects of trials in either civil or military courts seriously problematic. Whether tried or not, the Obama administration remains determined to keep under lock and key those it regards as continuing to represent a threat to the US until “the end of hostilities”, a particularly difficult concept in this context.
Mr Obama had abandoned the controversial military tribunal process instituted by Bush in favour of attempting to bring prisoners to the mainland and before the ordinary courts. That route was effectively blocked by Republicans and some Democrats in Congress who brought in restrictions in December on prosecuting detainees in federal courts and have frustrated the administration’s plan to hold civilian trials for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-professed chief plotter of the 9/11 attacks, and others accused of terrorism.
The president’s move means that some of those who were expected to face federal trial will probably now shortly face charges before military tribunals.
In a separate order the president strengthened the automatic review process for those being detained without trial. And in a welcome move he said also he would ask the Senate to ratify additions to the Geneva conventions that safeguard the rights of victims of conflicts within nations as opposed to those between nations.