Experts: Guantanamo Closing Might Not Be Answer

If the United States closes its detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the detainees being held there will face continuing uncertainty. Some believe that they could find themselves in facilities that are less transparent than Guantanamo.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Bush conceded yesterday that the military prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has tarnished America's image abroad.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'd like to close Guantanamo, but I also recognize that we're holding some people that are darn dangerous.

INSKEEP: There have been numerous calls to close Guantanamo, even from America's closest allies, but that might be easier said than done.

NPR National Security Correspondent Jackie Northam looks at the options and the challenges.

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

From the moment prisoners first began arriving at Guantanamo Bay in early 2002, administration officials described them as the worst of the worst.

As the number of suspected terrorists at the camp swelled, so, too, did the controversies - allegations of abuse and mismanagement, and concerns about lack of due process.

Over the years, Guantanamo has become an albatross around the government's neck. Now, virtually all senior administration officials say they want it closed. The tricky part is, what do you do with the roughly 460 detainees still being held at the camp?

John Sifton, terrorism and counter-terrorism researcher for Human Rights Watch, says many of the prisoners could be sent back to their home countries, but not all of them.

Mr. JOHN SIFTON (Terrorism and Counter-terrorism Researcher, Human Rights Watch): With Chinese and with Uzbek detainees, Saudi detainees, Yemeni detainees, the United States is in a difficult position, because sending them back subjects them to a heightened risk of torture and even execution.

NORTHAM: The U.S. State Department approached more than 100 countries over the course of two years trying to find a home for a small group of Uighurs, a minority Muslim group in northwestern China who were being held at Guantanamo.

The U.S. did not want to send the Uighurs back to China, fearing the men would be tortured. In the end, the five Uighurs were sent to Albania, which has no Uighur community, and that set off a diplomatic row with China.

There are also problems with sending detainees to prisons in their home countries, says Sean McCormack, State Department spokesman.

Mr. SEAN MCCORMACK (Spokesman, U.S. Department of State): And we also have to assure ourselves that they're not going to go in the front door of the jail and out the back, because that would defeat the purpose. And people who have been released in the past, have turned up back on the battlefield.

NORTHAM: Eugene Fidell, the President of the National Institute of Military Justice, says if the Bush administration has those kinds of concerns about repatriating detainees and won't send them home, the U.S. should at least give them due process.

Most of the prisoners have been held at Guantanamo for more than four years. Fewer than a third have lawyers; only 10 have actually been charged. Fidell says the best option would be to try the men in federal court, but Fidell acknowledges that could present its own challenges.

Mr. EUGENE FIDELL (President and Director, National Institute of Military Justice): Oh, there may well be tremendous problems in trying to prosecute anybody among the Guantanamo detainees in a federal court, because of speedy trial issues, because of violations of Miranda rights, because of improper interrogation techniques.

NORTHAM: But Professor Douglas Kmiec, with Pepperdine University, says trying high profile terrorism suspects in federal court could jeopardize national security. Kmiec says the better alternative would be an ad hoc international court, like the one set up for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

Professor DOUGLAS KMIEC (Professor of Constitutional Law, Pepperdine University): There are some real advantages to that not only in terms of the perception of fairness that that would bring from the international community, but that includes a kind of preexisting set of prosecutors and rules.

NORTHAM: But Bradford Berenson, a former official in the Bush administration who helped draw out the legal strategy regarding the detainees, says an international war crimes tribunal isn't necessary, because the U.S. is capable of trying the detainees in military tribunals. However, the legitimacy of those tribunals is in question until it's decided by the Supreme Court later this month.

Berenson says Guantanamo serves an important purpose: housing suspected terrorists, many who should never be set free. And critics who call for its closure should be careful what they wish for. Berenson says, right now, the detention center is close to the United States and there's relatively free access for policy makers, the press, and human rights groups.

Mr. BRADFORD BERENSON (Partner, Sidley Austin Brown & Wood; Former Associate Counsel, Bush Administration): If Guantanamo is shut down, those people are going to have to be moved someplace else, and that someplace else may well be less accessible - not more accessible - to the people who are interested and concerned with what's going on.

NORTHAM: While the Bush administration decides how to best handle Guantanamo, the chorus of calls from around the world to shut the base is expected to grow.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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