Obama to revive Guantanamo trials

May 13, 2009 12:00 am

, WASHINGTON, May 13 – President Barack Obama is due to announce this week that he is reviving controversial military trials for suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay, US officials said.

But Obama, who sharply criticized the use of military commissions to try extremists under his predecessor George W. Bush, may ask lawmakers to expand legal protections for detainees, said the officials, who requested anonymity.

The president could push the US Congress, which created the military commissions in 2006, to curb the use of hearsay evidence, ban coerced testimony and allow suspects to choose their defense counsel, one source said.

The move would affect, among others, five detainees charged with having played key roles in the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes, including the plot’s self-proclaimed mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Obama’s decision would come as Republicans have fiercely assailed his order to close the detention facility at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba by January 22, 2010, and Democrats have rejected a White House funding request to shutter the prison.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, said trials by military commissions would only be acceptable under revised rules expanding the legal protections for defendants and that Obama may act quickly.

Republican Senator John McCain, a main author of legislation creating the commissions, said such trials were the only adequate venue for trying suspected terrorists and that he was working with the White House on a way forward.

"I will be meeting with the White House people, (Republican) Senator (Lindsey) Graham and I, to try and help sort this out, but they’ve dug themselves a deep hole" on Guantanamo, McCain told reporters.

"They made a significant error by announcing, with great fanfare, the closing of Guantanamo without a comprehensive plan to address the issue of enemy combatants, the return of people to countries that they came from, the whole issue of where you hold people if you close Guantanamo," said McCain.

The facility, synonymous around the world with US "war on terrorism" excesses, still holds 241 inmates from 30 different countries, according to the Pentagon.

For weeks, Republicans have assailed Obama for his January executive order calling for closing the facility and suspending the military commissions, saying the president did not have a plan for what to do with the prisoners.

"Guantanamo is one of the most blatantly stupid decisions I’ve ever seen," Republican Senator Orrin Hatch told reporters Tuesday.

"I think they ought to get off their duff and realize that they made some mistakes and go with the commission system and move ahead," said Hatch, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But that, according to Jon Jackson, a military lawyer representing 9/11 suspect Mustafa al-Hawsawi, would be "choosing the easy wrong over the hard right."

"The commissions are easy for the president because they are already set up, but they are the wrong thing to do because no matter how they try to change the rules, the military commissions are tarnished and cannot be fixed," he told AFP.

"The hard right thing to do is to prosecute these individuals in a regularly constituted court, such as the federal court or a court martial."

Some experts argue that the harsh interrogation techniques such as "waterboarding," or simulated drowning — which Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder regard as torture — used on high-value terror suspects could render evidence obtained from such suspects inadmissible in a federal court.

US Department of Justice memos released in April reveal that Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times in a single month.

"It would really be ironic if we end up justifying using this altered system on the ground that we have individuals that we cannot prosecute in federal court because we tortured them … and therefore we have to apply a less due process in order to try them," said Sharon Bradford Franklin, a rule-of-law expert at the Constitution Poject.

Tom Parker of Amnesty International said the president would be making "a disastrous misstep" if Obama revived the commissions after blasting them as "an enormous failure" on the campaign trail last year.


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