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Senate Panel Debates What to Do with Guantanamo Detainees


The Senate Judiciary Committee has held a hearing on what to do with detainees at Guantanamo Bay when U.S. President Barack Obama closes the prison next January. Republican members of the committee argued the detainees should be tried in military commissions due to national security concerns. Democratic members of the panel argued that the detainees should be prosecuted in U.S. civilian federal courts, saying military commissions have been discredited in recent years.

After a House committee hearing on detainee issues last week, a Senate panel took up the fate Tuesday of the 219 detainees who remain at Guantanamo Bay.

Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona made clear he strongly prefers that detainees be tried under a military commission system, saying that trials in civilian U.S. courts pose a risk to national security. He said U.S. military commissons have proven themselves to be fair and effective.

"Military commissions have been used for over two centuries to bring justice to war criminals, and they have done so in a way that is fair to the accused," said Senator Kyl.

Senator Kyl also expressed concern that President Obama would either need to postpone his announced closing of Guantanamo, or bring a large number of detainees to the United States for trial.

"President Obama has issued an arbitrary deadline for closing Guantanamo by January 22, 2010, less than six months from now, but thus far, we know precious little about how he intends to do it," he said.

Assistant Attorney General David Kris told the panel a task force created by the president has already reviewed more than half of the cases of the remaining detainees, recommending more than 50 for transfer to other countries. He said the task force is on target to complete its review of all cases by October.

The Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee showed a strong preference for trying the remaining detainees in U.S. civilian federal courts. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois pointed to the low number of convictions by military commissions since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"For seven long years, the Bush administration failed to convict any of the terrorists who planned the 9/11 terrorist attack," said Senator Durbin. "And for seven long years, only three individuals, three, were convicted by military commissions at Guantanamo Bay."

Senator Durbin cited a study that says 145 terrorists have been convicted and sentenced in U.S. federal courts since the September 11 attacks.

The two top government lawyers at the hearing, Assistant Attorney General David Kris and the Defense Department's General Counsel Jeh Charles Johnson argued that both military commissions and civilian trials should be used to try Guantanamo detainees, with decisions on which system to choose made on a case by case basis for each defendant.

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