Closing Guantanamo is just the easy part

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2009, 12:00am

The US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay has been a stain on the country's moral standing and leadership globally. It has become a potent symbol of the excesses of the outgoing Bush administration in its prosecution of the so-called 'war on terror'. Even US President George W. Bush has said - at least since 2006 - that he wants to shut it down. If the US is to regain its reputation as a beacon of democracy and civil liberties, it must find a way to try terror suspects that respects the rule of law and international human rights norms.

News that US president-elect Barack Obama is preparing an executive order to close Guantanamo during his first days in office is therefore welcome. But shutting it down is the easy part; the problem is what to do with the inmates, many of whom have been detained there for years without being charged.

Furthermore, there are believed to be highly secretive 'black sites' where terror suspects are detained in allied countries - operated by US intelligence or military agents. Such sites are, by their nature, likely to be even more unaccountable in the way they operate than Guantanamo. Mr Obama also needs to acknowledge whether such sites exist, and if so, how he plans to close them as well.

The US has a long tradition of criminal justice with rigorous due process. Yet, after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration in effect decided that the nation's justice system was inadequate to deal with terrorists. Guantanamo, a symbol of this extrajudicial system, has detained more innocent people than terrorists. More than half of the 770-plus detainees known to have passed through its facilities have been released. Many others remain there only because the US cannot find countries to take them. There are only an estimated 150 or so hardcore terror suspects. US courts have successfully prosecuted terrorism suspects such as Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, Zacarias Moussaoui, a 9/11 conspirator, and Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. Americans should trust their robust justice system and try terror suspects in US courts.