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US: Obama’s First Year Record on Counterterrorism Reform Mixed

Key Bush-Era Abuses Repudiated, but Major Problems Remain

(New York) - US President Barack Obama has made significant progress in his first year in office toward ending the Bush administration's abusive counterterrorism policies, but he has also made some serious missteps, Human Rights Watch said in a background paper released today.

"Counterterrorism and Human Rights: A Report Card on President Obama's First Year," reviews the Obama administration's advances, analyzes its mistakes and urges more meaningful and extensive reforms.

"President Obama has done the right thing by ending the CIA's secret prison program and trying to close Guantanamo," said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. "Unfortunately, he has also adopted many of the Bush administration's most misguided policies."

Among the administration's key accomplishments, Human Rights Watch cited executive orders to close secret CIA prisons and ban torture and other mistreatment by all US personnel, and its decision to transfer the prosecution of the alleged 9/11 perpetrators from a military commission to a US federal court.

Human Rights Watch singled out the administration's continued reliance on indefinite detention without charge - including in its upcoming plans to transfer some detainees from Guantanamo to a prison in Thomson, Illinois - as being its most serious misstep.

"Closing Guantanamo by effectively moving the prison onto US soil won't solve the problem," Mariner said. "The administration needs to prosecute the detainees implicated in crimes, and either repatriate or resettle the rest."

Human Rights Watch said that the administration's record was also marred by its revival of the discredited military commissions to prosecute some defendants; its reluctance to seek accountability for past abuses by US officials; and its efforts to obtain the dismissal of civil cases alleging torture by asserting the state secrets privilege.

Human Rights Watch acknowledged that the Bush administration's legacy of abuse posed daunting challenges, including resolving the cases of the more than 240 prisoners held at Guantanamo when Obama took office. The attempted bombing of a US airliner on December 25, 2009, by a Nigerian man with alleged links to Yemen has exacerbated the difficulty of closing the facility and returning Yemeni detainees to their country.

Human Rights Watch said that Yemenis at Guantanamo should not endure continued detention for a crime carried out without their participation or knowledge. It urged the administration to work with Yemen on a plan for the safe repatriation or resettlement in other countries of the Yemeni detainees who are not subject to criminal prosecution. Human Rights Watch also called on both governments to provide returnees with social and medical services to aid their reintegration and make them less vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups.

In addition, Human Rights Watch criticized the administration's continued reliance on an overbroad understanding of the state secrets doctrine, which has resulted in cases brought by persons alleging to have been tortured being thrown out of court before they can be heard on the merits. By improperly asserting that disclosing information about whether plaintiffs were tortured would damage national security, the Obama administration has barred victims of abuse from seeking redress.

While Human Rights Watch praised the administration for declassifying Bush-era Justice Department memos that provided the legal framework for the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," as well as for releasing a report from the CIA's Inspector General's office detailing a range of CIA abuses, it criticized Obama's decision to block the release of photographs depicting detainee abuse by US troops.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Obama administration to take more vigorous steps to ensure that senior officials responsible for abusive Bush-era policies are held accountable. It raised concerns that the preliminary review of CIA abuses ordered by Attorney General Eric Holder was focused on so-called "unauthorized" interrogation techniques, and was unlikely to look up the chain of command to the senior-level officials who planned, ordered, and facilitated abuses.

Without the deterrence provided by meaningful accountability, Human Rights Watch said, practices like torture and enforced disappearance will remain available to future administrations as policy options.

"By abolishing secret CIA prisons and banning all use of torture, President Obama took important steps toward setting a new course," Mariner said. "But to renew America's commitment to human rights and US constitutional values, the Obama administration will have to confront the past as well. Only by investigating and prosecuting torture and other crimes against detainees will the US government be understood to have surmounted them."

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