Guantánamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba is set to close within the next year. As one of his first orders of business, newly inaugurated President Obama asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to pause military prosecutions at Guantánamo Bay on Wednesday. On Jan. 22, Obama signed an executive order to close the detention center within a year.
It is not yet clear how the nearly 250 current detainees, termed “enemy combatants” in the war on terror, will be handled.
Executive orders, which are controversial because they legislate unilaterally, can be challenged by a two-thirds majority in Congress or through the federal courts. The issues tied to President Obama’s executive order on Guantánamo are rich in complexities.
“There are people who are being held at Guantánamo who are still bent on doing harm to America, Americans, and our allies,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell during a Jan. 19 press briefing. “There will have to be some solution for the likes of them.”
According to recent Pentagon statistics, about 11 percent of Guantánamo detainees have returned to fighting, a “substantial increase.” Of former detainees, 18 are confirmed and 43 suspected of returning to fighting—61 in all.
The current number of Guantánamo detainees is approximately 250.
Swift Congressional Response
The congressional response to Obama’s executive order was swift on both sides of the aisle, as several congressional leaders issued statements on their Web sites.
The reaction was mixed—a common question being where detainees would go after the center closes.
“The Guantánamo Bay prison is filled with the worst of the worst—terrorists and killers bent on murdering Americans and other friends of freedom around the world,” said House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a statement on Thursday. “If it is closed, where will they go, will they be brought to the United States, and how will they be secured?”
Rep. Boehner was a cosponsor of the Enemy Combatant Detention Review Act (H.R. 6705), introduced by Judiciary Committee Ranking Republican Lamar Smith (R-TX).
Other supporters of the legislation included Judiciary Committee Members from Wisconsin, Arizona, California, Ohio, North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, and Florida.
The legislation would prohibit federal courts from releasing or transferring Guantánamo detainees into the U.S., and would establish rules regarding the detention of known terrorists. It would also create a standardized process for detaining enemy combatants.
“Closing Guantánamo Bay presents a clear and present danger to all Americans,” said Rep. Smith in a statement on Thursday. He added that there is concern over the possible relocation of suspected terrorists to military prisons in the U.S.
Other members of the House were more supportive, with the move being seen by some as a first step in restoring the U.S.’s reputation and standing in the world community.
Congressman John P. Murtha (D-PA), Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, particularly praised the order for its measure to prohibit torture by U.S. personnel.
“The Bush Administration never understood what the Guantánamo detention facility symbolized to the rest of the world,” said Rep. Murtha in a statement, which was also published on Huffington Post on Thursday. He added that the Bush administration was simplistic in its view of what the prison symbolizes, evidenced in a recent statement by former Vice President Dick Cheney that “Guantánamo has been very well run”.
“The problem with Guantánamo was never about its bricks and mortar,” said Murtha. “The problem with Guantánamo is that its very existence stains and defies the moral fiber of our great nation.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) also released a statement, emphasizing the need to consider the “complex issues that are central to detainee policy”.
Human Rights Critics
The detention center at Guantánamo Bay has been widely criticized since its establishment after the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
According to one critic of the center, Amnesty International, almost 800 people have been held at Guantánamo during the past seven years. The human rights organization adds that the majority of these have been held “without charge or prospect of a fair trial, no or limited access to lawyers, and no visits from their families”.
Amnesty International figures indicate that about two dozen current detainees have been charged with military commission trials and at least six are facing a possible death penalty.
Human Rights Watch, which has sent observers to all of the military commission trials and most hearings at Guantánamo, says that so far only three detainees have been convicted in military commission trials. They include David Hicks, a former kangaroo skinner, Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former driver, and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, Osama bin Laden’s self-proclaimed media secretary.
Despite the rate that Guantánamo detainees return to the battlefield, there are some individuals who are in the process of being released.
According to the Pentagon, an unnamed number of current detainees are ready to be sent back to their home countries as soon as a willing recipient can be identified. Such a recipient includes the governments of these countries, which must guarantee the safe treatment of the individuals, their confinement, or monitor them to prevent them from returning to terrorism.