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Sorting out Guantánamo detainees

President Obama orders a thorough review of pending terror cases.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2009

Change of command: Chief Petty Officer Bill Mesta replaces George Bush's photo with President Obama's in the lobby of the headquarters of the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

brennan linsley/ap


President Obama's pledge to close the terror prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is being hailed as a major step toward restoring world opinion of the United States as a champion of human rights and the rule of law.

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But it remains unclear to what extent Mr. Obama will make a clean break from controversial policies in the Bush administration's global war on terror.

Obama administration officials agree that certain Al Qaeda suspects at Guantánamo should be tried in federal or regular military courts rather than the special military commissions set up under President Bush. And they agree that many of the remaining 245 detainees can be returned to their home countries for release or further detention.

But there is less agreement over what to do with a potential third category of detainees – an uncertain number of terror suspects whose cases do not lend themselves to prosecution in civilian or military courts but who are viewed as too dangerous to release.

In one of his first acts in office, the new president asked military judges at Guantánamo to halt ongoing commission trials pending a top-to-bottom policy review of the detention facility and the terror tribunals.

Some experts urge imposition of a bright-line policy to force the US government to either charge detainees with a crime or release them. They suggest that creating a third category of detainees deemed too dangerous to release would perpetuate Mr. Bush's policy authorizing the indefinite detention without charge of persons he deemed "enemy combatants."

"The problem with this is all fear," says Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, N.J., who wrote a series of reports critical of US actions at Guantánamo. Some pundits and security experts are "playing political games about dangerousness."

The best way to close Guantánamo, he says, is to file criminal charges against detainees who can be prosecuted and release the rest. "Everyone is looking for a perfect solution to an intractable pair of choices," Mr. Denbeaux says. "There is no magic bullet."

What makes the issue so difficult is trying to maneuver around controversial past US actions at Guantánamo – harsh interrogations and alleged torture, bypassing the Geneva Conventions, use of coerced statements to justify further detention, military commissions with stripped-down due process protections. "Everybody is ... trying to make policy and determine issues out of a half dozen absolutely disgusting aberrations," Denbeaux says. "Somehow we want to both convict these people and separate ourselves from the evil we did to them."

Many human rights advocates and detainee lawyers are urging Obama to turn a new page. "The most expeditious way to close Guantánamo is to announce as a matter of principle that 'charge or release' is going to be the methodology for sorting through these cases," says Shayana Kadidal, managing attorney of the Guantánamo Project at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York.

Prosecution may not be possible

Other analysts warn of the potential consequences of trying to force the prosecution of cases built on evidence tainted by coercive interrogations or torture.

Timeline of events at Guantánamo Bay military prison

January 2002: First 20 detainees arrive at Guantánamo Bay military prison and are held in cages with concrete floors.

December 2002: Defense Department authorizes use of interrogation methods including hooding, sensory deprivation, and dogs on Guantánamo detainees.

May 2003: Gitmo's population peaks at 680 people.

October 2003: International Red Cross notes the deterioration of the mental health of many detainees.

August 2004: Combatant Status Review Tribunals begin to determine whether each detainee is an enemy combatant.

June 2004: US Supreme Court rules that detainees have some right to challenge their captivity.

March 2005: Thirty-eight detainees are found not to be enemy combatants and therefore eligible for release.

May 2005: Riots erupt over alleged desecration of the Koran at Guantánamo.

February 2006: A UN report recommends closure of Guantánamo.

June 2006: Three detainees die in apparent suicides.

March 2007: Australian detainee David Hicks pleads guilty to material support for terrorism during hearing, is sent to prison in Australia, and later released.

June 2006: Supreme Court rules that Geneva Conventions apply to Gitmo detainees.

June 2008: Supreme Court rules that detainees have a constitutional right to challenge detention in federal court.

June 2008: Five detainees are arraigned in connection with the 9/11 attacks.

July 2008: The first trial of a Guantánamo detainee, Salim Hamdan, takes place before a military commission. Mr. Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver, is convicted of providing material support for terrorism and acquitted of conspiracy, then transferred to Yemen in November to serve the remaining month of his term .

January 2009: Hours after taking office, President Obama orders military prosecutors in Guantánamo war crimes tribunals to ask for a 120-day suspension in all pending cases.