Fate of Detainees Unclear, Despite Court Ruling The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that military war crimes trials for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are illegal is a rebuke to the Bush administration. But what does it mean for those being held at the U.S. detention facility in Cuba?
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Fate of Detainees Unclear, Despite Court Ruling

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Fate of Detainees Unclear, Despite Court Ruling

Fate of Detainees Unclear, Despite Court Ruling

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

To examine the impact of the court's ruling on the hundreds of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, we're joined by NPR's Jackie Northam.

Now Jackie, one of the things the Supreme Court did not explicitly say today was that the Bush administration would have to close Guantanamo, which is something that a number of people, both here and abroad, have been calling for. Is there a chance that President Bush will in fact try to close this camp?

JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:

Well, he has said that he wants to. He said it several times over the past couple months. Administration officials today really avoided answering that question specifically. And it's too early to say right now how this is going to play out in the international community.

One of the biggest concerns over Guantanamo, above the allegations of torture, is this lack of due process, you know, these open ended detentions where the detainees have no sense what their future is. And in fact, many people say that's why, you know, so many are trying to commit suicide.

If the administration can set up a new system that would satisfy the Supreme Court decision today to try these detainees, that should help speed up the whole process. If they can clear out a lot of the people that are not considered a threat, give the rest their day in court, then that could help quell a lot of the international criticism against Guantanamo.

But a lot of this depends on how long it'll take to set up that new system and various other things. The other thing, though, is President Bush has said he wants it closed. Various other administration officials agree with him and say that as well. But the fact is, when you're on the ground in Guantanamo, there is simply no sense of that whatsoever. They've just finished building a new intelligence center there, a new headquarters. They're building a second hard-walled prison, wind turbines to generate electricity. Again, there is just really no sense that this place is going to shutter anytime soon.

BLOCK: Now there are about 450 prisoners being held at Guantanamo. How many have actually been charged with crimes by the United States?

NORTHAM: 10 of them so far. And that includes Mr. Hamdan. Pentagon officials said today that there is anywhere from 40 to 80 more detainees who could possibly be charged in the future. Now I know that's an imprecise figure and when we try to press at officials to firm up that number or give us any idea of what determines whether somebody is going to be charged or not, you don't get a straight forward answer. And there's all sorts of qualifications attached to any sort of answer that you do get from them.

But even if you go with the high number of 80, plus the 10 that are already charged, that leaves us with more than 350 detainees. And those are the ones that the government is trying to either transfer back to their home countries or release them outright. But they say that there's many countries who do not want their nationals back. Others, the government doesn't want to send home because there's genuine fears that they will be tortured. And just to get rid of the ones that can be cleared to go home, it's just a long, arduous process and it's just very difficult, the government says.

BLOCK: Now, the Supreme Court case today was about Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former driver, and you were in the courtroom when he first appeared at his military trial. What does this ruling mean for Hamdan, at least in the short run?

NORTHAM: What it means is that Mr. Hamdan is going to have to wait more time now to have his day in court. It's really, for all intents and purpose, puts him back at square one now. They have to come up with a new type of commission that will satisfy the Supreme Court. And there's no clear sense that the government will be able to get these new commissions under way.

And so in the meantime, yeah, Mr. Hamdan and nine others will just have to wait.

BLOCK: Has there been any word on Hamdan's reaction? In fact, does he even know about what the court ruled today?

NORTHAM: Well, Pentagon officials said today that they have cleared Mr. Hamdan's lawyers to tell him what the decision was. I'm not sure if he really has a good sense of just how big a decision this was today as far as, you know, the government's strategy in the war on terror or how we're gonna try these type of prisoners or that. But he'll find out sometime soon just what the decision was.

BLOCK: Jackie, thanks very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: NPR's national security correspondent, Jackie Northam.

And you can find more reaction from Capitol Hill, the military and lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees at our website, NPR.org.

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