Accessibility links

Obama Orders Halt To Guantanamo Trials

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Camp Justice, the location of the U.S. Military Commissions court for war crimes at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay.

Camp Justice, the location of the U.S. Military Commissions court for war crimes at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay.

Just hours after Barack Obama was sworn in as U.S. president on January 20, he instructed military prosecutors to seek a suspension of the trials of terror suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

Military prosecutors were told to ask judges to suspend ongoing trials for 120 days, pending a review of the controversial judicial procedures used against suspects at the Cuba-based facility.

By making this one of his first decisions upon taking office, Obama has shown he takes seriously his campaign pledge to close Guantanamo, which is widely seen as a stain on the United States' human rights record.

In his inaugural address, Obama set out the philosophical basis of his determination to close Guantanamo.

'We Will Not Give Them Up'

Referring to international terrorism, he said the United States faces great dangers, but he said that fact must not cause the nation to forget its oldest ideals.

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," Obama said. "Our founding fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.
The Guantanamo detention facility was created by the administration of President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The U.S. government has since detained -- for years and without trial -- hundreds of men suspected of involvement in terrorist activities against the United States.

Those inmates who have been subjected to a judicial process have faced special tribunals under full military control, which do not meet the normal U.S. judicial standards.

Human rights activists have long criticized these military commissions, as well as the general treatment meted out to prisoners at Guantanamo, which they claim has sometimes reached the level of torture.

At present, of the 248 people being held at Guantamamo, there are charges pending against 21 detainees, including five who are accused of direct involvement in the 9/11 attacks and who face the death penalty. Some 50 detainees have already been exonerated but cannot be returned to their home countries out of fear of reprisals, including possible torture.

'Destructive Course'

Obama aims to close the prison camp as quickly as possible. But that still leaves unresolved the question of what to do with the several hundred remaining inmates. Hence the review of the military-commissions system and the legal alternatives for prosecuting suspected terrorists, including in U.S. civilian courts.

Human rights groups have welcomed the new administration's quick action, but some are still worried.

The international director of Human Rights First, Gabor Rona, in comments to The Associated Press, praised the move as reversing the "destructive course" of the previous administration in terrorist matters.

Jamil Dakwar of the American Civil Liberties Union called it a positive step, but he cautioned that the presidential order for a review leaves the option open that the Guantanamo system -- which still has its supporters in military circles -- could remain in existence.

The military judges presiding over the present Guantanamo trials are not obliged to heed the presidential call for a 120-day pause in proceedings. It is in the nature of a request to the judges rather than a command -- another example of the value the United States traditionally places on independence of the judiciary.

But there is little doubt in practical terms that the judges will accede to Obama's request, given the urgency with which Obama has acted, and his stated intention to remedy what he sees as a flawed system. In his inaugural address, he said it's time to "remake" America.

"Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed," Obama said. "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

With agency reports
Profiles In Courage

"On The Front Lines" is a special RFE/RL project that spotlights men and women who have dedicated their lives to the causes of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, human rights, ethnic tolerance, and democratic values. More