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Obama lifts freeze on Guantanamo trials

March 08, 2011 15:07 IST

United States President Barack Obama on Tuesday lifted the freeze on military trials for Guantanamo Bay terror suspects by signing an executive order that will create a formal system of indefinite detention of such prisoners. "I am announcing several steps that broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice, provide oversight for our actions and ensure the humane treatment of detainees," Obama said in a statement.

Within hours of his taking over as the President, Obama had announced a freeze on Guantanamo Bay trials along with a vow to shut it down within a year. The camp still holds 172 prisoners, including key suspects from the September 11 attacks and other terror strikes against the US, as well as prisoners scooped from battlefields in Afghanistan.

While announcing lifting of the freeze, Obama also issued new guidelines to ensure humane and lawful treatment of suspects considered too dangerous to be released. "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. 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," Obama said.

"From the beginning of my administration, the United States has worked to bring terrorists to justice, consistent with our commitment to protect the American people and uphold our values," he said. Among the various steps, the US is initiating the use of enhanced military commissions to bring terrorists to justice. This grows out of efforts that the President helped to lead to reform the military commissions to make them a more credible and enhanced tool of justice.

The order also provides for periodic review of those detainees who are being held without trial. Officials conceded that the executive order recognises the reality that some detainees will remain in US custody for many years.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement that the Obama Administration is taking two important steps regarding additional protocols of the 1949 Geneva Conventions that reaffirm the country's determination to treat all detainees humanely. This is also to advance America's long-standing leadership in setting and encouraging compliance with global legal standards for the conduct of armed conflict.

"These steps we take today are not about who our enemies are, but about who we are -- a nation committed to provide all detainees in our custody with humane treatment. We are reaffirming that the United States abides by the rule of law in the conduct of armed conflicts and remains committed to the development and maintenance of humanitarian protections in those conflicts," Clinton said.

"The order strengthens the legal framework under which we will continue to detain those individuals who pose a significant threat to our national security. In addition, federal courts will continue to review the legality of detention of individuals at Guantanamo," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "While we continue to work to close Guantanamo, these steps will ensure that the individuals' detention is appropriate under our laws," he said.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates issued statements saying he support the changes, and revoked his January 2009 order suspending the filing of new military commission charges. "I issued the prior order to permit the new administration time to conduct a comprehensive review of the status of each detainee," he said.

"That review is now complete." Like other administration officials, Gates said it is important to retain the right to prosecute detainees either in military commissions, or in federal civilian courts.

Lalit K Jha
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