Expert Urges U.S. Trials For Guantanamo Suspects

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President-elect Barack Obama says closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is one of his top priorities, but it is still unclear what will happen to the terrorism suspects held at the facility. One suggestion: Try them in U.S. courts.

Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies advocates doing just that in her recent report, Closing Guantanamo: From Bumper Sticker to Blueprint. She passed her recommendations on to the Obama transition team and says the case of each Guantanamo detainee needs to be carefully examined.

"We're hoping that a panel will review all the files and they will sort the files of those detained into two categories: one to be released, which involves a lot of diplomacy, and another to be brought to prosecution to the U.S. criminal justice system," Mendelson tells NPR's Michele Norris.

Seeking New Evidence

She cautions, however, that some of the evidence against the detainees cannot be used in the U.S. criminal justice system because it has been derived through methods she calls torture.

"In some cases, you're probably going to need to have teams of prosecutors and FBI agents gathering new evidence in order to be able to put together an indictment and bring people to justice," she says.

The Bush administration put together the system of military commissions to try suspects captured in the war on terrorism and held at Guantanamo. Mendelson says that since 2001, this system has yielded three convictions, but spurred several legal challenges. By contrast, she says, the U.S. criminal justice system has obtained 145 convictions in international terrorism cases since 2001.

Military Commissions Vs. U.S. Courts

"Overall, our sense is that the U.S. criminal justice system, with all its flaws, is a better, more reliable and more valued way in which to deal with this situation," she says.

Mendelson says that while awaiting trial, the Guantanamo detainees can be held in pretrial detention facilities associated with whatever court they are going through. She says the 145 suspects who were convicted in U.S. courts were also held in such facilities.

"The American population is not terribly aware that there have been all these other cases that have gone before U.S. courts and that people have been put away," she says. "And if you contrast that with the kind of attention ... that Guantanamo has received ... the way it has delegitimized American authority, I think you can see putting them through the U.S. criminal justice system has a way of washing away the armor and the martyrdom and making them into criminals."

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