Senate Approves Transfer Of Prisoners For Trials

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Some more Guantanamo detainees may be coming to the United States for trial. Lawmakers in the Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that lets President Obama transfer detainees to the U.S. for prosecution only.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Congress has set the rules for moving some detainees away from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some, but not all. The Senate voted last night that some detainees can come to the United States. They can only come if they're going to be put on trial. The House has already said the same.

NPR's Ari Shapiro is tracking the president's plan to close Guantanamo. Ari, Good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How much has changed here?

SHAPIRO: Well, actually not a whole lot. The big change here, really, is that Congress has basically removed its threat to close the door from Guantanamo to the United States altogether. A few weeks ago the House of Representatives voted to bar all detainees from coming to the United States for any reason, but that was not a binding vote. This is a real bill that President Obama plans to sign into law, and it says Guantanamo detainees can come here for prosecution, but only for prosecution.

Other restrictions that had been in place remain there. For example, the administration has to give Congress 45 days notice before any Guantanamo detainee comes to the U.S., and they have to provide 15 days notice before any detainee is released to a foreign country. That was the case in the old law and it's the case in the new law.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember the basic dilemma here. The president has said that he wants to close Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He thinks it's a bad symbol, among other things. The question is where - the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, I should say - the question is where everybody goes. Of the couple hundred or more people at Guantanamo Bay, how many might come to the United States for trial?

SHAPIRO: Well, right now, the Justice Department says over 40 cases are being examined for prosecution. So, it's really just a fraction of the - as you say, more than a couple of hundred people who are at Guantanamo right now. The cases that are being looked at have been sort of farmed out to U.S. attorneys' offices, federal prosecutors' offices across the country, where teams of prosecutors - both civilian and military - are looking at a specific detainee's file to see whether it makes the most sense to try them in a typical civilian criminal court or in a revised version of military commissions, war crimes trials that President Obama is setting up.

INSKEEP: Remind us what's happened with one detainee who has come to the United States for trial.

SHAPIRO: Right, his name is Ahmed Ghailani, and he was accused of the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. In a way, his case is sort of the easiest to try in civilian court because he's accused of crimes that took place before 9/11, co-conspirators in this plot have already been tried and convicted, and because all of the evidence in his case comes from 1998 and thereabouts, you don't run into the problems in his case that you run into with some other detainees involving things like torture. So, he is already in the United States, but at the moment he's the only Guantanamo detainee here in the U.S. and he's being held in a prison in New York.

INSKEEP: When you say things like torture, you mean that there may be evidence gathered from these - these detainees in ways that could never be admitted in American court.

SHAPIRO: Right, and that's part of the reason that President Obama says some detainees may never be put on trial, military or civilian trial. He says some very dangerous people may be held forever without trial, and that's one of the many questions that is still not answered by this bill Congress has passed. Where will those detainees go?

Another question that is still not answered is, what happens to the detainees who have been cleared for release but nobody will take them? There are roughly 90 people, who have been cleared for release, but the U.S. has only been able to find countries willing to take about 20 of them.

INSKEEP: And - and very briefly, Ari Shapiro, at the same time that Congress is moving, the Supreme Court is getting involved here.

SHAPIRO: That's right, yesterday, the justices agreed to hear a case testing whether a judge can order the administration to release detainees into the United States who are deemed not to be dangerous. The executive branch says that should be our position and some judges have said, no, if people aren't dangerous, we can order them released.

INSKEEP: Okay, Ari, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's justice correspondent, Ari Shapiro.

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