WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama said Monday he would lift the two-year freeze on new military trials for Guantanamo Bay terror suspects and issued new guidelines on the treatment of those held indefinitely.
Obama, who has been thwarted in his desire to close the camp in Cuba which he calls a recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda, issued the long-awaited decision after a sweeping review of administration policy.
The White House made clear that despite permitting new trials at the camp, it remained committed to using federal courts to try some suitable suspects and vowed to complete the “difficult challenge” of closing Guantanamo Bay.
“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.
The White House said Defense Secretary Robert Gates would soon issue an order “rescinding his prior suspension on the swearing and referring of new charges in the military commissions.”
New military trials at the camp — which contains top suspects from the September 11 attacks and other strikes against the United States, as well as prisoners from the battlefields of Afghanistan — have been suspended since January 2009.
Obama also issued guidelines on the treatment of inmates who US authorities deem cannot be tried due to concerns about the admissibility of evidence obtained under duress, or who are are deemed too dangerous to free.
In an executive order, he ruled that among other requirements, detainees would have the right to a periodic review of the reasons for their continued incarceration.
But Obama also reserved the right to try some detainees in federal courts, a process in which he has been blocked by members of Congress opposed to bringing terror suspects to the US mainland for legal proceedings.
Monday’s actions represented the Obama administration’s latest bid to navigate the thicket of legal problems left over from the previous Bush administration’s “war on terror” policies.
In one of his first acts as president in 2009, Obama halted trials at Guantanamo Bay and announced he planned to close the controversial camp within a year.
But he has been thwarted in his ambition by the task of finding a new structure to deal with suspects deemed to be at war with the United States and opposition from friends and foes on Capitol Hill.
The White House said it was allowing the special trials to resume after enacting key reforms, such as a ban on the use of statements taken under “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
It said it has also adopted a better system for handling classified information that made military commissions an “available and important tool in combating international terrorists.”
The executive order was designed to ensure that those inmates detained indefinitely without trial are only kept behind bars when it was “lawful and necessary” to do so, the White House said.
Detainees will be given notice of a pending periodic review on their case and receive information on the factors under consideration to determine their fate.
Should it be decided that a detainee no longer poses a threat to the United States, US government agencies will seek to identify a suitable transfer location — but no detainees will be released on US soil.
In the White House fact sheet, the administration also thanked those countries that have agreed to take inmates at Guantanamo Bay.
“Our friends and allies should know that we remain determined in our efforts and that, with their continued assistance, we intend to complete the difficult challenge of closing Guantanamo,” it said.