President Barack Obama on Monday approved the resumption of controversial military trials for suspected terrorists at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The decision, which ends a two-year ban on military trials of detainees at the facility, is disappointing for some legal scholars.
The White House released a new executive order for Guantanamo trials to resume, after a long review of judicial options concerning alleged terrorists.
President Obama promised better safeguards for the rights of detainees, following criticism by human rights groups and other countries for a lack of fairness.
The executive order states that the Obama administration remains committed to eventually closing the detention facility, where about 170 detainees remain in custody. It also said the U.S. system of justice remains a key part of the war against al-Qaida terrorists.
In a background briefing, senior administration officials said the order strengthens U.S. security needs and American values.
Mason Clutter, an attorney for the Washington-based Constitution Project, says her organization has mixed feelings about the president's decision to resume the military trials.
"The Constitution Project is pleased that the administration remains committed to using our civilian criminal justice system," said Clutter. "However, we are disappointed that the administration is not going to be proceeding with parallel trials in the civilian justice system while they are trying cases in the military commission system."
Clutter says many of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay are being charged with material support of terrorism and conspiracy, and that it is debatable whether these charges qualify as war crimes.
The chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Republican Howard McKeon, said he was disappointed that Mr. Obama had made his policy through an executive order rather than through legislation. But he welcomed the resumption of military trials at Guantanamo Bay. Another Republican, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, said he hoped Mr. Obama would abandon his promise to close the detention center.
The White House stated that some of the detainees must continue to be held at Guantanamo Bay even though they have not been formally charged because they remain at war with the United States.
One of the first trials likely to proceed under the new order would involve Saudi national Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Legal scholars say that case presents challenges for the Guantanamo military commissions because it concerns an attack that took place before the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, which led to the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay detention center. They also say the trial might involve the death penalty, which has not been considered in previous Guantanamo trials.
Mason Clutter of The Constitution Project says she hopes the executive order is a start and that the Obama administration will continue to make progress on the issue.
"The way that we have proceeded to date has caused quite a bit of conflict between the United States and our allies, and I think it is in our best national security interests to work toward a system that is more consistent with the rule of law and with our constitution to better protect our relationships with our allies abroad," she said.
Legislation passed earlier this year denies the use of defense funds to transfer Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States to face trial in the U.S. civilian justice system. And there are efforts underway in Congress to ban the use of government funds for such transfers.
Prior to becoming president, Mr. Obama promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, move detainees to the United States and shift cases to U.S. civilian federal courts. But those plans have met stiff resistance from many U.S. politicians, including from those in the president's own Democratic Party.