Gitmo remains headache for Obama

2016-06-05 21:22
(File, AP)

(File, AP)

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Washington - The Obama administration is running out of time and options to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba, so officials are scrambling to release as many prisoners as possible. They are considering novel legal strategies that include allowing some men to strike plea deals by video-teleconference and sending others to foreign countries to be prosecuted.

But it looks to be little, too late to close the prison before President Barack Obama leaves office in January, denying him the chance to fulfill a campaign pledge.

Executive order

There's the difficulty in transferring prisoners from the US base in Cuba, questions about the legality of plea deals and solid opposition in Congress to anything that might help Obama achieve that promise.

"The clock has struck midnight and the American people have won," said Senator Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, who has said he would oppose any effort to move detainees to prison facilities in his state. "The president needs to admit that."

Later this month, lawmakers are on track to extend a ban on moving detainees to US soil. That would leave the president with no way to make the January 2017 deadline, barring an unexpected reversal in Congress or a politically explosive executive order.

The White House increasingly is pointed to a parallel strategy: trying to shrink the number of detainees in hopes of persuading lawmakers that Guantanamo is too expensive to sustain as a prison.

Of the 80 remaining detainees, 30 have been cleared for an overseas transfer. Most will leave starting in late June and continuing into July, according to a US official. Those prisoners will go to a number of countries, including at least one in Europe, said the official.

Seven additional detainees are facing trial by military commission, including five charged with planning and supporting the September 11 attacks. Three others have been convicted. But commission proceedings have gone on at a glacial pace. In April, the Pentagon put forward fresh proposals for Guantanamo, but none has been incorporated into defence legislation moving through Congress.

The remaining 40 were either at one time considered for prosecution or held as indefinite "law of war detainees" until the end of hostilities in the fight against terrorism that began after the 2001 attacks. The United States started using Guantanamo for suspects in January 2002; at its peak, the facility held about 680 prisoners.

Current pace

US officials have chipped away at those numbers through the periodic review board, a multi agency task force that conducts parole-style hearings for men once deemed too dangerous to release.

The board did not hold a hearing until November 2013, but recently it has picked up its pace, holding more than 20 so far this year. Outcomes are leaning heavily in prisoners' favour. If the government keeps up its current pace of about two per week, it wouldn't complete hearings, much less arrange for transfers, until December.

The US also is working with other governments to prosecute some detainees overseas, the official said. These could be prisoners accused of conduct outside the US involving offences against citizens of other countries. It would otherwise be difficult or impossible to prosecute these men in an American court.

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