The Obama administration will miss the January 2010 deadline set for closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba (photo, from aljazeera.net), admitted the US president.
On Wednesday, Obama said that a new deadline would not be set for the facility, where more than 200 detainees are still being held. Yet the US president said that he does expect Guantanamo to be shut down at some point in the new year.
“Guantanamo – we had a specific deadline that was missed,” he told US-based NBC television from Beijing, which he is visiting as part of an Asian tour.
During his first week in office, in January 2009, Obama had vowed that he would close Guantanamo within a year of taking office, arguing that the prison does not adhere to US standards on human and civil rights.
The White House says that it will continue to push for the facility’s closure, and is moving to repatriate some of the detainees who have been cleared for release, while seeking countries willing to provide asylum to others like the Pacific island of Palau did for some Uighurs.
‘Getting it done the right way’
Christopher Anders, the senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the organisation was “disappointed” that the deadline would not be met.
“But what is more important than meeting the deadline is getting it done and getting it done the right way,” he told Al Jazeera.
“That means defendants should be charged in a civilian criminal court, as the alleged 9/11 are being charged, and people who are not being charged with crimes should be cleared and resettled or repatriated in places where they are happy they are out of danger of being tortured or abused.
“We should not have more people being sent to military trials and we should not have people continue to be detained indefinitely without charge,” Anders, who served as a human rights observer at the US military commission hearings at Guantanamo Bay, said.
On Wednesday, during a separate interview with CNN, Obama also said US citizens should not be “fearful” about the decision to put five men accused of organising the September 11, 2001 attacks on trial in New York City.
Angry reactions from some victims’ families and Republican politicians followed last week’s announcement that the defendants would be moved from Guantanamo Bay to New York.
John McCain, a Republican senator and Obama’s rival for the presidency, said the decision sent “a mixed message about America’s resolve in the fight against terrorism”.
“We are at war, and we must bring terrorists to justice in a manner consistent with the horrific acts of war they have committed,” he said.
But Obama told CNN: “I think this notion that somehow we have to be fearful, that these terrorists possess some special powers that prevent us from presenting evidence against them, locking them up and exacting swift justice, I think that has been a fundamental mistake”.
The decision to bring the men to trial was made by Eric Holder, the US attorney. He said he would not “cower in the face of this enemy”.
“At the end of the day, it was clear to me that the venue in which we are most likely to obtain justice for the American people is in federal court,” he told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Wednesday.
“By bringing prosecutions in both our courts and military commissions, by seeking the death penalty, by holding these terrorists responsible for their actions, we are finally taking ultimate steps towards justice,” he said.
Although officials are considering whether some of the detainees can be moved to a prison in rural Illinois, previous attempts to discuss transferring the prisoners to the mainland US have been met with resistance from politicians.
“It’s hard not only because of the politics. People I think understandably are fearful after a lot of years where they were told that Guantanamo was critical to keeping terrorists out,” Obama told another interview with Fox News.
“So, I understood that that had to be processed, but it’s also just technically hard – I just think as usual in Washington things move slower than I anticipated.”