United States Congress opens door to Guantanamo Bay detainee repatriations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 11:56pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 December, 2013, 1:48am


Many of the terrorist suspects held at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, may be closer to heading home under a bipartisan deal reached in the US Congress that gives President Barack Obama a rare victory in his fight to close the facility.

The deal would lift the most rigid restrictions Congress previously imposed on detainee transfers overseas and is part of a compromise defence bill awaiting final passage in the Senate this week. The House approved the measure last Thursday.

It's the first time since Obama came to office promising to close Guantanamo that Congress has moved to ease restrictions instead of strengthen them.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin championed the cause and predicted the resulting compromise could have a dramatic impact on the detainee population.

"About half of the detainees would be detainees that could be transferred to their third-world countries from which they come," Levin said. "About half of the detainees would remain in Guantanamo because of the prohibition on transferring them to the United States for detention and for trial."

Half of the 158 detainees at Guantanamo were approved for transfer nearly four years ago, provided that the home country could provide security guarantees. But the Obama administration has argued that many approved transfers effectively have been blocked by restrictions imposed by Congress.

But even with the deal, Obama still faces big obstacles to closing Guantanamo. Congress has effectively blocked him from doing so for his first five years in office, and he faces declining clout in his final three. Yet the president seems determined as part of his legacy to push for closure of the prison he argues never should have been opened and "has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law."

Congressional proponents of keeping Guantanamo open say they felt they had to allow for transfers to other countries to maintain a more important priority - a bar on detainees coming into the United States.

The deal comes amid the release of a series of Guantanamo detainees. It was announced on Wednesday that Noor Uthman Muhammed, 51, and Ibrahim Othman Ibrahim Idris, 52, the last Sudanese prisoners at the base, had been freed.

In exchange for a guilty plea to terror offences in February 2011, part of Muhammed's 14-year sentence was suspended and he completed his term on December 3. Idris, who had been cleared for transfer since 2009 by an inter-agency task force, was released following an October court order from the US District Court in Washington.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse