Pressing forward on a vow to shut the military prison at Guantanamo Bay as a first order of business, the Obama administration circulated a draft order Wednesday calling for a review of all 245 prisoners’ cases and the eventual closure of the facility.
The order, which is expected to be issued today, said the prison at the U.S. naval base in Cuba should be closed “as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.”
Closing the facility “would further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice,” the presidential draft reads.
The draft emerged just hours after the new president appealed to military judges to halt ongoing prosecutions of terrorism suspects.
Army colonels presiding over the two cases scheduled for hearings this week suspended those proceedings, sending the defendants back to their cells and mothballing the tribunal at the U.S. naval base in southern Cuba.
The swift steps by the Obama administration countered an attempt by advocates of the war crimes court to see the internationally maligned military commissions forced onto the new White House.
Some Republican leaders pressed to keep the prison and tribunal functioning, claiming it protects national security.
“The key question is where do you put these terrorists? Do you bring them inside our borders? Do you release them back into the battlefield?” said House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio after learning of the closure order.
“If there is a better solution, we’re open to hearing it,” he said. “But most communities around America don’t want dangerous terrorists imported into their neighborhoods, and I can’t blame them.”
The government has been whittling down the Guantanamo population the last three years by transferring to their home countries those deemed little threat to the U.S. Six prisoners were repatriated last week, dropping the number to about 245.
The executive draft drew praise from some human rights advocates and appeals from others for a speedier dismantling of the Bush administration’s detention and prosecution legacies.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said that putting the Justice Department, instead of the military, in charge of reviewing prisoners’ cases sent a clear message.
“Symbolically, putting the attorney general in charge signals doing this consistent with the rule of law is the first priority,” he said.
But Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said he was disappointed that the draft order contained “no concrete steps for closing the base” and gave officials a year to empty the prison.
“It only took days to put these men in Guantanamo. It shouldn’t take a year to get them out,” said Warren, whose group has spearheaded the battle against the offshore justice system since Bush created it shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Foremost among the 21 men facing war crimes charges at Guantanamo are Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four alleged Sept. 11 co-conspirators.
The suspension of that prosecution by Army Col. Stephen R. Henley, at the new administration’s request, means the suspected Sept. 11 plotters will stay in their maximum security cells at Guantanamo until at least mid-May.
Proceedings were also halted against Canadian prisoner Omar Khadr, accused of having thrown a grenade that killed a U.S. Special Forces soldier during a 2002 firefight in Afghanistan when he was 15.
Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the British rights group Reprieve, urged European countries to help Obama close Guantanamo by taking in those detainees who cannot be returned to their home countries for fear of torture or execution.
He also reminded the White House that Guantanamo was “only the most infamous of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Bush administration.” He said tens of thousands of terrorism suspects remain jailed by U.S. forces and allies in Iraq, Afghanistan and in secret prisons around the world.