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US: Mark Guantanamo’s Seventh Year by Closing It

Obama Should Announce Plan for Closing Detention Center Upon Taking Office

(Washington, DC, January 9, 2009) - Guantanamo's seventh anniversary should be its last, Human Rights Watch said today. Upon taking office, US President Barack Obama should announce a detailed plan for closing the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and shutting down the military commissions being held there.

On January 11, 2002, the first 20 detainees arrived, hooded and shackled, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Today, about 250 men remain, most of whom have been there for nearly seven years, in a detention system that has significantly damaged America's reputation around the world.

"Guantanamo has undermined America's moral authority around the world," said Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. "President Obama should make closing the detention center one of his first orders of business."

As a starting point, Obama should designate a high-level interagency task force to review the detainees' files and decide who should be brought to trial and who should be released. Those who are implicated in serious crimes should be brought to the United States for prosecution in federal court, and the remainder should be sent to their home countries or third countries for resettlement.

The incoming administration should also admit into the United States some of the Guantanamo detainees who have already been slated for release but cannot be returned home because of the likelihood of torture or persecution. It should step up negotiations with US allies around the world to find solutions for the others.

Among those who fall into this category are a group of 17 Chinese Uighurs who have been cleared of the "enemy combatant" designation, but cannot be returned to China due to credible fears that they would be tortured upon return. In October 2008, a US federal court ordered the Bush administration to admit these men into the United States due to its failure to resettle them elsewhere. Members of the Uighur community and refugee resettlement groups promised to provide the men housing, and language and job training. But the Bush administration has appealed the ruling, and the Uighurs remain incarcerated in Guantanamo.

"For years, America's allies have justifiably pointed to the US refusal to resettle Guantanamo detainees to explain their own inaction," Daskal said. "The Obama administration should lead the way to a broader resettlement effort by agreeing to accept the Uighurs into the United States."

President Obama should also reject any call to create a preventive detention system in the United States as a way to "solve" the Guantanamo problem. Such a system would have the same major defects as the Guantanamo system, as detainees would be held indefinitely without charge. Preventive detention would be based on assumptions about future behavior that are impossible to rebut, and would almost certainly embroil the new administration in years of legal challenges and controversy.

"The problem with Guantanamo is not the place, but the system of indefinite detention without charge," said Daskal. "Simply moving the Guantanamo system from Cuba to the United States is no solution."

Those remaining in detention at Guantanamo include:

  • An estimated 60 detainees who have already been cleared for release or transfer - in some cases years ago - but remain at Guantanamo because they cannot be returned home, the United States has refused to admit them onto its soil, and no third country has been willing to accept them.
  • Eighteen detainees who face pending charges before the Guantanamo-based military commissions.
  • One detainee serving a life sentence for terrorism-related crimes.
  • Two detainees - Omar Khadr and Mohammad Jawad - who were children when they were brought to Guantanamo. Khadr is now 22 and Jawad is now either 22 or 23. They are both facing trial before military commissions, and Khadr's trial is currently scheduled to begin on January 26.
  • Two detainees - Lakhdar Boumedienne and Saber Lahmar, both Algerian citizens and former residents of Bosnia - who won their habeas cases when a federal court judge ruled that they were being unlawfully detained. They remain in Guantanamo because they cannot return to Algeria for fear of torture, and the Bush administration will not accept them in the United States.
  • Sixteen "high-value" detainees who were transferred from secret CIA detention facilities - "black sites" - to Guantanamo; 14 of them were transferred in September 2006, and two of them at later points in time. These men were reportedly tortured or otherwise abused in CIA custody, including the acknowledged "waterboarding" (mock drowning) of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri.
  • Approximately 230 detainees who are being held without charge, including close to 100 Yemenis; the others are from various countries, including: Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan.

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