The two-year freeze on controversial military trials for detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison (photo, from aljazeera.net) has been lifted by Barack Obama on Monday.
Some see this announcement as the US president’s latest effort to work around “war on terror” policies put in place by the previous Bush administration.
Although the White House said president Obama remained committed to the eventual closure of Guantanamo Bay, he acknowledges that the prison will not close soon, even though he had vowed to shut it down within a year of taking office.
The US president also announced a new process for continuing to hold the detainees that are not charged or convicted but who are deemed too dangerous to free, arguing that the measures would “broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice”.
Also on Monday, US defence secretary Robert Gates issued an order revoking his previous suspension on the “swearing and referring of new charges in the military commissions”.
But Mr Obama reaffirmed his support for trying terror suspects in US federal courts, an idea that has met resistance in Congress.
In a statement the US president said : “I strongly believe that the American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and we will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system – including Article III courts – to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened.”
Article III courts are civilian tribunals.
Because of interrogations regarding where terror suspects would be held, the closure of the detention facility on Cuba has become untenable.
Previously politicians have objected to detainees being transferred to US federal courts, and Mr Gates recently said that Congress has made the process of releasing them to other countries more complicated.
In January president Obama signed a defence bill which blocked the use of Defence Department dollars to transfer Guantanamo suspects to US soil for trial.
On Monday, the White House announced it would now work to overturn that law.
President Obama’s decision to restart the military commissions pleased Howard McKeon, chairman of the house armed services committee. However he added that work must be done by the administration and Congress, in order to create a trial system which will stand up to judicial review.
‘Available and important tool’
Having carried out key reforms, the Obama administration said it would allow certain trials to resume. One of those reforms is a ban on the use of statements taken under “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and the introduction of a better system for handling classified information.
“With these and other reforms, military commissions, along with prosecutions of suspected terrorists in civilian courts, are an available and important tool in combating international terrorists,” the Obama administration said.
The first trial to proceed under Mr Obama’s new order would probably involve Saudi Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who has been imprisoned at Guantanamo since 2006.
He is the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.
172 detainees remain at Guantanamo and 35 of them have been recommended for prosecution.