Originally published on February 9, 2009, at politicsunlocked.com
President Barack Obama has signaled that the U.S. military will close Guantanamo Bay detention camp within one year. The prison has become a divisive symbol of the controversial handling of enemy combatants by the Bush administration’s War on Terror.
President Obama has shifted responsibility for the remaining 245 Gitmo prisoners from the Defense Department to the Justice Department. Newly appointed Attorney General for the United States, Eric Holder, Jr., will take responsibility for determining whether those prisoners will be given civil or military trials, transferred to foreign countries or released.
The outlines of the President’s new policy on detention will be filled in in coming months, but certain things are clear.
The President has forbidden the use of torture against detainees in American custody. “The United States will not torture,” the President stated.
This policy includes prisoners under CIA control, and while extraordinary renditions will be allowed to continue during the Obama administration review of policy, the CIA will not be allowed to transfer prisoners to any country where they will be subject to torture.
Outgoing CIA chief Michael Hayden sent a message to staff at the agency stating that the new policy would be carried out, “without exception, carve-out or loophole.”
Holder’s justice department has begun review of enemy combatant court cases beyond Guantanamo Bay, such as that of Ali Al-Marri, held at a military brig in North Carolina. Al-Marri has appealed to the United States Supreme Court for review of the Defense Department’s decision to imprison him without trial. Al-Marri was living in the United States as a legal resident at the time of his arrest, giving him a stronger position to seek a trial than, say, an enemy combatant captured by coalition forces in Afghanistan.
However, the Obama administration sought a postponement of hearing by the Supreme Court. Al-Marri “is clearly a dangerous individual,” Obama has said. “We have asked for a delay in going before the Supreme Court to properly review the evidence against him.”
The Bush administration had also decided to close the Guantanamo Bay facility, but ran into difficulty finding new places to house the remaining detainees. Bush policy was to hold enemy combatants without trial or transfer them to foreign countries for incarceration.
However, the U. S. Supreme Court has ruled that all Guantanamo detainees are entitled to habeas corpus, or, the right to petition a federal court for review of the decision to imprison them.
Recently, a federal court in Washington D.C. ordered five Algerian detainees to be released for lack of sufficient evidence against them. Other detainees have been caught in legal limbo because the United States would like to release them to their native China, but are constrained by the probability that they will be subject to ill treatment or execution if returned, because of their opposition to the Chinese regime.
The Obama administration will also deal with the question of detainees held in U.S. military custody abroad, such as those held at the Bagram base in Afghanistan.
These prisoners were captured in military operations and are thus more like traditional enemy combatants, but some have been held for as long as eight years and there is still no end in sight for conflict in Afghanistan.
From a policy perspective, Obama’s intent to increase U.S. troops and coalition commitments in Afghanistan soon, will likely result in more enemy combatant prisoners, going forward.