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(Washington, DC) - The Obama administration's newly issued position on Guantanamo detainees is a disappointment, Human Rights Watch said today. Rather than rejecting the Bush administration's ill-conceived notion of a "war on terror," the Obama administration's position on detainees has merely tinkered with its form.

The administration's position was disclosed on March 13, 2009 in a court filing in response to a federal judge's order seeking a definition of the term "enemy combatant."  

While the filing avoided using the phrase "enemy combatant," it did not jettison the idea that persons alleged to be involved in international terrorist activities were participating in a war. The filing instead relied on closely related phrases like "members of enemy forces" and "members of an opposing armed force."

"The Obama administration's take on detainees is essentially the Bush standard with a new name," said Joanne Mariner, director of the terrorism and counterterrorism program at Human Rights Watch. "At least for now, the Obama administration is claiming the power to pick up people anywhere in the world on the grounds of support for or association with al Qaeda or the Taliban, and to hold them in military detention for what might be the rest of their lives."

The only substantive difference from the position previously asserted by the Bush administration is that if the person's link to al Qaeda or the Taliban is support, that support must be "substantial." But membership in any of those organizations remains grounds for detention. 

Human Rights Watch said that the only good news in the court filing is its emphasis that the administration's position is subject to change, as its comprehensive review of detention policy takes shape. It said that any detainees at Guantanamo who are implicated in terrorist acts should be prosecuted in federal court, which have proved capable of handling even the most sensitive and complicated such prosecutions.

"We urge the Obama administration to reconsider its views," Mariner said. "The administration should be prosecuting terror suspects in the federal courts, not looking for ways to circumvent the criminal justice system."

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