US President Barack Obama signs an executive order calling for the military detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to be closed within a year.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - The Obama administration should commemorate Guantanamo's eighth anniversary tomorrow by renewing its pledge to close the prison quickly and responsibly, Human Rights Watch said today. Prisoners implicated in crimes should be charged and brought to trial before federal courts, and the remainder should be sent home or resettled in other countries.

The United States brought the first 20 detainees, hooded and shackled, to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba, on January 11, 2002. Despite President Barack Obama's stated commitment to close the prison by January 2010, nearly 200 men remain, most of whom have never been charged with any crime.

"President Obama made Guantanamo one of his signature issues when he pledged on his second day in office to close the detention facility within a year," said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. "Although he is missing that deadline, the administration should intensify its efforts to responsibly repatriate or prosecute those held and shut the prison as soon as possible."

In December, the Obama administration announced that it planned to transfer some detainees from Guantanamo to the Thomson Correctional Center, an Illinois state prison that the federal government intends to purchase.

While speeding the closure of Guantanamo, moving detainees to the United States for continued detention without charge would merely be bringing Guantanamo's fundamental failing to the US mainland, Human Rights Watch said. 

"The US should stop relying on indefinite detention without charge, one of the practices that makes Guantanamo such a blight on America's reputation," Prasow said.  "Should the administration continue to hold the detainees without charge, it will not be closing Guantanamo but moving the prison to Illinois." 

Human Rights Watch said that the administration should not involuntarily repatriate detainees to countries where they are likely to be tortured, ill-treated, or detained indefinitely without charge, but rather find third countries willing to resettle them. Dozens of detainees from countries such as Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia, as well as several Uighurs from China, will need to be safely resettled in third countries.

Human Rights Watch expressed particular concern about Guantanamo's Yemeni detainees, who currently comprise nearly half of the detention center's population. Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced that it was halting returns to Yemen due to security concerns following the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to ignite an explosive mixture on a commercial jetliner on December 25. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, reportedly received training in Yemen.

Human Rights Watch urged the administration to charge the Yemenis implicated in crimes and work with the Yemeni government to safely repatriate or resettle in third countries the rest. It called on both the US and Yemen to provide released detainees with assistance to help them successfully reintegrate into society and make them less vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups. If necessary, Human Rights Watch said, Yemen or a third country could place restrictions on the detainees' movements to protect national security.

Human Rights Watch also urged the administration to prosecute Guantanamo detainees implicated in crimes in US federal courts rather than the discredited and inefficient military commissions. Federal courts have tried more than 200 terrorism cases since September 11, 2001; more than 90 percent of those cases have resulted in convictions.

"US federal courts have a long history of swiftly and fairly trying terrorism suspects," said Prasow. "The military commissions will never be viewed as credible and have only managed to secure three convictions in the past seven years."