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Obama Signs Order To Close Guantanamo Within A Year


U.S. President Barack Obama signs the second of three executive orders to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
(RFE/RL) --- U.S. President Barack Obama has acted with lightning speed to order the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

During his second full day in office, Obama on January 22 signed an executive order to shut down Guantanamo as soon as possible -- at the latest within one year.

"The message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism and we are going to do so vigilantly," Obama said at the signing ceremony.

"We are going to do so effectively and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals," he said.

The president signed a related order that bans harsh interrogation techniques previously permitted at the prison camp, and another that requires all U.S. personnel to follow the U.S. Army field manual in matters relating to questioning of detainees. The manual forbids physical abuse, coercion, and threats.

He also signed a directive creating a special interagency task force to deal with those detainees "that may be currently in Guantanamo, that we cannot transfer to other countries, who could pose a serious danger to the United States, but [whom] we cannot try because of various problems related to evidence."

The task force will include the attorney general, the secretary of defense, the secretary of homeland security, the director of national intelligence, the director of the CIA, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others.

Finding A Legal Solution

Obama's swift action to fulfill one of his major campaign promises has won wide praise.

European Commission spokesman Michele Cercone welcomed the move that will allow Guantanamo detainees to face judicial proceedings that fit accepted norms. He called Guantanamo a "sad episode."

"In a state ruled by the law, everyone is entitled to the right of defense," Cercone said, adding that commission Vice President Jacques Barrot "has full confidence in the United States that light will be shed on the situation of Guantanamo prisoners. All of the them are equally subject to due process."

Guantanamo still holds some 250 inmates, most of whom have been detained for years without trial.

Obama has secured a suspension of the trials going forward at Guantanamo at special military tribunals. Critics say such tribunals are open to bias, because the military acts as prosecutor, defense, and judge.

"Suspending these prosecutions is an important first step towards closing down the system completely," said Reed Brody of the group Human Rights Watch, adding that what is important now is to formulate the way forward in procedural terms.

"Shutting Guantanamo is very important, but what is needed is to ensure that all the detainees at Guantanamo are treated according to the rule of law," Brody says. "They should either be put on trial according to international standards before American courts, they should be held as prisoners of war, or they should be released."

'National Security Court'

These are questions Obama's advisers are now grappling with, namely how to stream these detainees into the established U.S. justice system. The Associated Press has reported that they are even considering setting up a new "national security court" system that would be able to take evidence from military commissions that might be inadmissible in a U.S. federal court.

So far, the new administration has not had much success in enlisting help from foreign allies in dealing with the inmates. About one-third of the remaining prisoners are categorized as low-risk suspects who could be transferred overseas for rehabilitation or release.

Of the countries approached, only Portugal has offered to take some detainees. Switzerland has said it is open to the idea of taking in prisoners. The EU appears cool to the idea, judging by rather ambiguous comments from foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

"The problem of Guantanamo is a American problem, a problem of the United States," Solana said. "We would very much like to see it resolved and the new U.S. administration would like that, too. They said it publicly very clearly. And if we can do anything so that this decision is taken as swiftly as possible, we will try to help."

Speed is also what the rights groups want to see. The director of the Human Rights First group, Lisa Massimino, says that will show the world that Obama means what he says.

compiled from agency reports

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