President Obama's decision to continue using military commissions to try terrorism detainees now held at Guantanamo Bay has surprised and angered human rights activists. As a candidate Mr. Obama criticized the military trials, but the White House says new rules ordered by the president will make the system legitimate.
President Obama announced shortly after taking office in January that he would close the Guantanamo detention center within a year. He also immediately suspended military trials there, and established a top-level task force to work out the future of the detainees and the legal process to deal with them.
Human Rights experts welcomed the moves, but also expressed caution, saying they wanted to wait to see where the detainees would be sent and how their cases would be resolved.
"We still do not know where the detainees will be held, but we now know the president will give officials the option of trying detainees in U.S. civilian courts or in a revised version of the military commissions that Obama and many others criticized during the Bush administration."
"The department believes that these rule changes will improve the process," said Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman.
He says Defense Secretary Robert Gates will soon inform the congress of five key rule changes that the new administration believes will make the commissions more legitimate. The first involves one of the most controversial aspects of the detentions in the first years after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
"Statements obtained using interrogation methods that constitute cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment will no longer be admitted as evidence at a trial," said Whitman.
Whitman says the new rules will also limit the government's ability to use hearsay evidence - second-hand accounts of things that allegedly happened or were said. He says the rules will also give defendants more flexibility in choosing their own attorneys, and protect them if they decide not to testify in their own defense.
But human rights activists are not satisfied.
"We're obviously hugely disappointed and very surprised," said Stacy Sullivan of Amnesty International. "The military commissions are so fundamentally flawed and so tainted by the last seven years, they are irreparable," she added.
Sullivan says U.S. federal courts are perfectly capable of trying these cases. And she calls Friday's announcement a setback for efforts to provide a credible legal process for the detainees.
"This is a huge blow," said Stacy. "You have a new president who comes in, one who was so critical of the military commissions when he was a senator, one who made an announcement on his second day in office that he was going to close Guantanamo and he suspended the military commissions."
"They you have him resurrecting the military commissions? This undermines his pledge to close Guantanamo because he's resurrecting the very thing that was so objectionable about Guantanamo in the first place," she continued.
The other concern of human rights groups was not addressed by the White House announcement. It is the possibility that some Guantanamo detainees may not be put on trial at all but still may be held indefinitely. That is an issue the president's task force is still working on, along with where the detainees will go after the president's one-year deadline for closing the Guantanamo detention center passes next January.
In the official announcement issued by the White House Friday, President Obama says he never opposed the idea of military trials, only the rules established by the Bush Administration. President Obama says the changes he has ordered "will begin to restore the commissions as a legitimate forum for prosecution," and he says he will work with the congress to implement more changes.
He says having the option of using regular American courts or military commissions for terrorism cases "is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values."
The president wants to resume the military trials under the new rules in 90 days. The most closely-watched trial involves confessed senior al-Qaida leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of planning and carrying out the September 11 attacks.