As deadline approaches, Obama speeds up Guantánamo Bay closure

The Obama administration's announcement Sunday that 12 Guantánamo detainees would be sent to other countries followed news that some detainees would be transferred to an Illinois facility. The president set a Jan. 22, 2010 deadline for closing the Guantánamo Bay prison, but seems unlikely to meet it.

The Obama administration announced Tuesday it wants to buy the Thomson Correctional Center, 50 miles northeast of Davenport, Iowa, and move 1,600 to 2,000 federal prisoners there, along with a “limited number” of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Obama administration is accelerating its efforts to close down the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, with the Justice Department’s announcement Sunday of a dozen more prisoner transfers to three foreign countries.

The announcement, following news last week of plans to transfer some Guantánamo prisoners to a facility in Illinois, suggests the Obama administration is moving quickly in several directions to shutter the much-maligned facility as close as possible to Mr. Obama’s own deadline of Jan. 22, 2010. The different approaches include trial for some detainees in federal court, detention of others on US soil, and transfer of still more to other countries.

The president acknowledges he is now unlikely to meet his Jan. 22 deadline, which corresponds with the completion of his first year in office. With just under 200 detainees remaining at Guantánamo, many analysts say a plan that seemed doable a year ago is bumping up against significant national-security considerations.

“This is a place where national security concerns run right up against political commitments made by the president in the campaign,” says Charles Dunbar, a professor of international relations at Boston University who earlier served as a US ambassador to Yemen and as chargé d’affaires in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Difficult dilemma

Mr. Dunbar says Obama inherited “an abomination” in the Guantánamo facility, which has been widely criticized in the US and abroad for holding prisoners without any charges or trial date. But he adds that the prospect of releasing detainees hardened by up to seven years of imprisonment poses a dilemma that won't be easy to solve.

Six of the 12 detainees whose release was announced Sunday will return to Yemen – a prospect Dunbar says does not fill him with confidence. “I hope they’ve made some serious judgments as to what these people are like and what they are likely to do upon return, because I can’t imagine there will be any serious effort to lock them up in Yemen,” he says.

Nearly half the remaining 198 detainees in Guantánamo are from Yemen, suggesting that country – the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden – will play a critical role in Obama’s plans to close down the prison.

Of the remaining six detainees whose transfer was announced Sunday, four are to be returned to Afghanistan, while two will be sent to Somaliland, an enclave inside conflict-torn Somalia. The transfers to Afghanistan raised fresh concerns about the conditions repatriated detainees will return to. Some may be treated well, but others may not, Dunbar says.

Transfer plans criticized

The announcement of the 12 new transfers was received with criticism, as was the plan unveiled last week for transferring detainees to an Illinois facility.

Amnesty International criticized the plan to transfer detainees to the US as merely “changing the Zip Code of Guantánamo,” while some Republican members of Congress assailed the plan for potentially offering civilian guarantees to wartime detainees.

“Once on US soil, terrorists can argue for additional rights that may make it harder for prosecutors to obtain a conviction,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas during a congressional hearing earlier this month on issue.

Others blame the “rush” to transfer detainees on Obama’s decision to close Guantánamo before the new administration knew how it would be done.

“What we are seeing now is a desperate effort to do something with these guys, but it all stems from the president preemptively closing off his options with his promise to close Guantánamo,” says Ralph Peters, a former Army intelligence officer with experience in the Middle East.

Obama’s critics from the left say the administration is perpetuating Bush’s system of indefinite detention by simply transferring them to Illinois.

But Mr. Peters says opening up the possibility of trials in US civilian courts means “a new type of combatant in a new form of warfare” will get access to rights imagined for either civilians or for 20th-century state-to-state warfare, he says.

Few combatants will be converted to the values of universal human rights by a civilian US trial, he adds. “The most just trial we can do is not going to cause a single terrorist to lay down his arms.”


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