WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday revived the system of Guantanamo military trials for foreign terrorism suspects, angering supporters who said he had broken a promise to end the controversial tribunals set up by the Bush administration.
Obama said the commissions would be restarted as an option for trying prisoners at the U.S. military base in Cuba after undergoing several rule changes, including barring statements obtained using cruel interrogation methods and making it more difficult to use hearsay evidence.
These reforms will begin to restore the commissions as a legitimate forum for prosecution, while bringing them in line with the rule of law, said Obama, who had opposed the Military Commissions Act enacted during the Bush administration.
He (the president) is determined to reform the military commissions as an available form, along with the federal courts, for prosecution of detainees at Guantanamo, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
Rights groups, who have been long been critical of Washington's treatment of foreign terrorism suspects, starting with the detention center at Guantanamo, rejected the notion that the tribunals could be reformed.
Amnesty International accused Obama, who took office in January, of breaking a major campaign promise.
The group's U.S. researcher, Rob Freer, said, No amount of tinkering with their rules can fix this discredited system.
These military commissions are inherently illegitimate, unconstitutional and incapable of delivering outcomes that we can trust. Tweaking the rules of these failed tribunals so that they provide 'more due process' is absurd, said Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The decision was the second in less than a week to anger Obama's liberal supporters, who believed that his promise during the presidential election campaign to reject the law establishing military commissions would bring about an end to the Guantanamo war crimes trials.
Obama, a Democrat who succeeded Republican President George W. Bush and has made several breaks with his foreign and security policies, has promised to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by 2010.
The prison was set up in 2002 at a U.S. base on the southeastern tip of Cuba to house foreign prisoners in the U.S. war on terrorism that Bush declared after the hijacked plane attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
Obama earlier this week reversed a previous decision and announced he would seek to prevent the release of photographs depicting alleged abuse of prisoners, saying the images could endanger U.S. troops abroad.
Among those facing trial at Guantanamo are self-described September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants who could be executed if they are convicted of nearly 3,000 murder charges stemming from the hijacked plane attacks.
The military trials process had been on hold since soon after Obama took office, pending a decision on how to proceed.
GUANTANAMO COURT DELAY SOUGHT
The administration asked on Friday for a 90-day delay in the court proceedings to allow time for the new rules to take effect. The rule changes must be shown to Congress 60 days before they go into force.
The secretary of defense will be sending to Congress several changes to the rules for military commissions, Whitman said. The department believes that these rule changes will improve the process.
He said the rule changes included:
- A ban on using statements obtained during cruel or inhumane interrogation
- A rule making it more difficult to use hearsay evidence
- Greater latitude for the accused to choose a defense counsel
- More protections for a defendant who refuses to testify.
When he took office in January, Obama ordered a four-month freeze on Guantanamo court proceedings to give his administration time to decide whether to move the prosecutions into the regular U.S. civilian or military courts or keep the special tribunals.
The freeze order had been seen as a death knell for the Guantanamo war crimes court, which has completed only two full trials since the detention camp opened.
U.S. authorities on Friday also released a Guantanamo Bay detainee who was part of a landmark Supreme Court case that granted inmates at the U.S. military prison the legal right to challenge their confinement, officials said.
The detainee, Algerian national Lakhdar Boumediene, was released from custody and flown from the U.S. Navy base to waiting relatives in France, said officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.