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Rights Groups Angry Over Obama's Military Tribunals Decision

A portrait of U.S. President Barack Obama at the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay.
(RFE/RL) -- Human rights groups are reacting angrily to U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement that he is reviving a system of military tribunals to try some terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

Obama, who strongly criticized the use of the tribunals when he was running for president, says the new tribunals will operate under new guidelines that better protect suspects' human rights.

"This is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values," Obama said in a three-paragraph White House statement.

Obama outlined five changes to the tribunal system that he said were aimed at bolstering defendants' rights.

The changes include putting strict limits on the use of coerced evidence, tougher restrictions on the use of hearsay evidence, and giving more latitude to defendants to choose their own lawyers.

Obama said: "These reforms will begin to restore the commissions as a legitimate forum for prosecution, while bringing them in line with the rule of law."

'Absolutely No Faith'

The announcement of the revival of the tribunals immediately brought criticism from human rights groups.

"This has been tried before. The first round of military commissions were struck down by the Supreme Court. They were revived under slightly improved rules and once again they were still profoundly unfair," said Stacy Sullivan of Human Rights Watch. "They allowed coerced evidence into the courtroom and they allowed evidence that had terrible hearsay rules, the judges didn't even know what the rules were. The proceedings were totally chaotic.

In one swift move, Obama both backtracks on a major campaign promise to change the way the United States fights terrorism and undermines the nation's core respect for the rule of law.
"This will be the third time that there is an effort to resurrect the military commissions," Sullivan continued, "and we have absolutely no faith that they are going to be any better, even if you do improve the rules slightly."

Another human rights group, the American Civil Liberties Union, called on Obama to abolish the tribunals instead of trying to reform them.

Jonathan Hafetz, a national security attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said, "There is no detainee at Guantanamo who cannot be tried and shouldn't be tried in the regular federal courts system. This is perpetuating the Bush administration's misguided detention policy."

Amnesty International was equally critical.

"In one swift move, Obama both backtracks on a major campaign promise to change the way the United States fights terrorism and undermines the nation's core respect for the rule of law," said Executive Director Larry Cox.

'Role To Play'

The Obama administration has rejected this and other criticism.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told a press conference in Washington that Obama was not backtracking on campaign promises.

"The president, as I said, during the [campaign] debate said that properly structured military commissions had a role to play. The changes that he is seeking, he believes, will ensure the protections that are necessary for these to be conducted in order to reach that certain justice, as well as live up to our values," Gibbs said.

As a senator, Obama voted for one version of the tribunal law that gave detainees additional rights, but then voted against the more limited 2006 legislation that ultimately became law.

The question of how to handle terrorism suspects has been highly controversial in the United States ever since U.S. forces began taking detainees from the battlefields of Afghanistan in late 2001.

The Bush administration set up the tribunal system at Guantanamo as part of a strategy of deliberately holding and trying terrorism suspects outside of normal civil and military courts. The Bush administration argued this was necessary to protect the secrecy of information gained from the suspects, information it said helped stop future terrorism attacks.

But the Bush administration's extrajudicial approach was repeatedly challenged by human rights and legal organizations for denying defendants rights they would be granted in most other courts.

Facility Ordered Closed

Obama's announcement on May 15 means the trials of 13 Guantanamo defendants in nine terrorism cases will be restarted no sooner than September. Five of the 13 are charged with helping orchestrate the September 11 terror attacks.

The U.S. president did not mention where the resumed tribunals for these most sensitive cases might take place.

Obama has ordered the Guantanamo detention facility -- which holds some 240 suspects -- to be closed by January 22, 2010.

Washington has discussed moving suspects with less sensitive cases to U.S. locations, something that suggests they may be tried in normal military or civil courts but with some modifications to protect confidentiality.

Those for whom there is no case are to be released to their home countries or other states willing to receive them.