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Obama Confirms He Will Close Controversial Guantanamo Prison

  • Charles Recknagel

A watchtower at the Guantanamo detention facility

A watchtower at the Guantanamo detention facility

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has confirmed he will close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, ending one of the most controversial chapters in U.S. President George W. Bush's war on terror.

Speaking on CBS's "60 Minutes" in his first television interview since his election, Obama also said he would assure that, in the future, U.S. interrogation methods are indisputably legal.

"America does not torture, and I'm going to make sure that we don't torture," he said, adding, "Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world."

The Bush administration has defended Guantanamo as necessary to protect the United States and American interests abroad against new terrorist attacks. But critics says Washington's use of the offshore facility as a centerpiece of its war on terror has sent a dangerous message to the rest of the world.

"A lot of damage has been done to the framework of human rights law," says Rob Freer at London-based watchdog Amnesty International. "What the U.S. has done by defining this counterterrorism campaign as a war, it wasn't just being rhetorical. And it has actually used that to justify bypassing its international human rights obligations. So, it sends the message that a government can define how it wants a particular set of circumstances; it can define who it wants as the enemy; and it can thereby manipulate its own human rights obligations."

Interrogation Study Panel

The Associated Press reports that Obama is expected to create a panel to study interrogations, including those techniques which critics label as torture, such as waterboarding, in which a suspect is immersed in water to the point of near drowning.

Obama frequently called during his election campaign to close Guantanamo, whose location at a naval base in Cuba puts it outside the normal U.S. civilian and military legal systems.

The prison has been a key component of the U.S.-led war on terror, holding some 700 terrorist suspects in total since January 2002.

Some 500 prisoners have been released, while some 250 remain incarcerated.

The Bush administration has said it also wants to phase out the facility but considers the majority of the remaining prisoners too dangerous to release. It has not repatriated them to their home countries because those states will not accept them or cannot guarantee they will be held securely.

Only two prisoners have been convicted at Guantanamo, but military tribunals have plans to try some 20 more, including some on charges of aiding in the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Four Guantanamo prisoners have committed suicide.

The status of detainees has been debated ever since U.S. forces began collecting them in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries.

From the start, the Bush administration defined the terror suspects as "enemy combatants" -- that is, armed fighters not in uniform and not affiliated with any state's military.

The administration argued that this status not only put the detainees beyond the U.S. judicial system but also beyond international conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war. Later, it conceded that they had some rights, and set up a system to determine whether each detainee was in fact an "illegal combatant" and therefore subject to detention and trial.

But all this has been repeatedly challenged in U.S. courts, and both the Supreme Court and the U.S. Congress have seen hot arguments over whether and how the Guantanamo prison can be reconciled with U.S. moral and legal values.

Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled in July that prisoners at Guantanamo have the right to challenge their detentions in federal court. The court's decision has boosted calls by critics of the facility to now bring the prisoners into the mainstream U.S. court and penal system.

Balancing Concerns

Still, problems remain, including how to try suspects whose testimony officials argue is sensitive to national security and must be kept secret.

The test for Obama now is how to balance these concerns with his own -- and the public's -- desire to finish with Guantanamo as one of the most controversial chapters in the war on terror.

Guantanamo has not only been controversial due to human rights groups charging the use of torture in interrogation. Much attention has also been focused on how many of the detainees were targeted for arrest in countries like Afghanistan. This includes the use of bounty awards to informants for identifying Al-Qaeda suspects, a practice some critics say raised the risk of false arrests.

In recent years, the number of new prisoners coming to Guantanamo has now dropped significantly since the early years of the war on terror.

The "The Washington Post" reported in July that only 20 detainees have been sent to Guanatnamo since October 2004.

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