Friday, May 15, 2009

Obama Revives Tribunal System for Guantanamo Inmates

President Barack Obama will keep the military tribunal system for trying some terrorism suspects held at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with expanded legal protections for defendants.

The Defense Department will ask a military court for another delay in trials of suspected terrorist as the first step, Obama said in a statement.

“We will seek more time to allow us time to reform the military commission process,” the statement said. “These reforms will begin to restore the commissions as a legitimate forum for prosecution, while bringing them in line with the rule of law.”

The actions would revamp and revive a system put in place by former President George W. Bush and criticized by Obama as flawed. Human rights groups criticized the president’s decision, while several key lawmakers voiced their support.

Obama, who has ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay facility, said he wanted to preserve the military commissions system as a forum “for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered.”

Obama requested and won from military judges a 120-day delay to the war crimes tribunals for 13 detainees hours after taking office on Jan. 20. The Pentagon is seeking additional 120-day continuances for nine cases currently in the system while a new version with more legal protections can be established.

Review by Congress

The president’s actions are subject to a 60-day congressional review. Lawmakers can modify the policy during that time.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration has been in discussions with top lawmakers involved in the issue, including Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, about “what additional changes might be sought” through legislation.

Graham issued a statement expressing support for Obama’s decision, saying it “will afford us the opportunity to reform the military commission system and produce a comprehensive policy regarding present and future detainees.”

New Rules

Under the new rules being formulated: Statements that have been obtained from detainees using cruel, inhuman and degrading interrogation methods will no longer be admitted as evidence at trial; the use of hearsay will be limited, so that the burden will no longer be on the party who objects to hearsay to disprove its reliability; the accused will have greater latitude in selecting counsel; basic protections will be provided for those who refuse to testify.

“This is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values,” Obama said.

Rights advocates took a different view.

“These military commissions are inherently illegitimate, unconstitutional and incapable of delivering outcomes we can trust,” Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, said in a statement. “Tweaking the rules of these failed tribunals so that they provide ‘more due process’ is absurd; there is no such thing as ‘due process light.’”

From lawmakers, Obama got bipartisan support.

Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the changes were “essential” because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that current practices fell short of minimal legal protections.

‘Legitimate Role’

“Military commissions can play a legitimate role,” he said, “but only if they meet standards of fairness established by the Supreme Court.”

The court ruled in 2006 that the administration lacked the authority to try Guantanamo Bay detainees before military tribunals because Congress hadn’t expressly authorized them. Congress later that year passed a law authorizing the tribunals, and in 2008 the high court struck down part of that law.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky supported Obama’s plan to revive the tribunal system, and sought to pressure the White House to keep terror suspects in Cuba.

“Given the disruption and potential dangers caused by bringing terror suspects into American communities, the secure, modern courtroom at Guantanamo Bay is the appropriate place for commission proceedings,” McConnell said in a statement.

‘Substantially Revamped’

As a presidential candidate, Obama had called the military commissions procedurally flawed. Attorney General Eric Holder, at his Senate confirmation hearing, said the tribunals would only be used if they were “substantially revamped” to give detainees more due-process rights.

Obama’s order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison has run into resistance from lawmakers. The Democratic-controlled House this week rejected an administration request for funding to shut down the facility. Some House members said Obama hasn’t adequately explained what the administration intends to do with those held there.