Obama defends Guantanamo closure plan, urges commitment to rule of law

[JURIST] US President Barack Obama [official profile] on Thursday reaffirmed [speech transcript] his commitment to closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility while upholding the rule of law by trying some detainees in federal courts and others in modified military commissions [JURIST news archives]. In a speech focusing on national security issues at the National Archives [official website], Obama said that Guantanamo detainees who are charged with violating American criminal law should be tried in federal courts "whenever feasible." Citing the terrorism convictions of Ramzi Yousef [GlobalSecurity backgrounder], Zacarias Moussaoui, and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri [JURIST news archives] in American courts, Obama said that "our courts and our juries, our citizens, are tough enough to convict terrorists." Detainees who are accused of violations of the laws of war would be better tried by military commissions, Obama said, after the commissions are brought "in line with the rule of law" by a series of bipartisan reforms [JURIST report]. Still other detainees would be transferred to other countries [JURIST report] for continued detention or released as ordered by US courts. Turning to what he called the "toughest single issue we will face," Obama proposed a detention system where those who cannot be tried, but nonetheless pose a "clear danger to the American people," could be detained without trial subject to judicial and congressional oversight:

Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture, like other prisoners of war, must prevented from attacking us again. Having said that, we must recognize that these detention policies cannot be unbounded. They can't be based simply on what I or the executive branch decide alone. And that's why my administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the rule of law.

We must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards for those who fall into this category. [There] must be fair procedures so that we don't make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified.
Rejecting criticism that incarcerating Guantanamo detainees in American prisons would pose a threat to the public [JURIST report], Obama pointed out that "[n]obody has ever escaped from one of our federal super-max prisons which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists" and called "the idea that we cannot find a place to securely house 250-plus detainees ... not rational." Obama also addressed his recent decision not to disclose photographs of detainee abuse, saying that it was consistent with his April decision to release CIA interrogation memos [JURIST reports]. Obama said that the information in the memos was widely available to the public, while the photographs would "inflame anti-American opinion and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning, and inaccurate brush, thereby endangering them in theaters of war." Saying that he "had to strike the right balance between transparency and national security," Obama clarified that he would not "protect information merely because it reveals the violation of a law or embarrassment to the government."

Obama's speech comes a day after the US Senate passed an amendment [JURIST report] eliminating $80 million intended to be used for the closure of Guantanamo until the president provides a "comprehensive, responsible plan" to do so. In a March interview [CBS interview transcript] with 60 Minutes, Obama reiterated [JURIST report] his position that US policies governing the detention and interrogation of Guantanamo detainees should comport with due process and international law requirements. In January, Obama issued an executive order [text; JURIST report] directing the military prison be closed "as soon as practicable and no later than one year from the date of this order."


 

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