Closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was one of the first promises made by President Obama, but that promise has proved one of the most difficult to make good on. As the White House continues to haggle with Congress over how and where to try terrorist suspects, the Department of Justice is quietly transferring prisoners from Gitmo to receptive nations.
Last week, Justice transferred three detainees to the Republic of Georgia and two others to Switzerland. Nine detainees have been transferred in the past two months, leaving the prisoner population of Gitmo at 183, with more than 580 released since 2002, according to the DOJ. Also lastweek, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that the government is not required to give Gitmo prisoners any notice of their impending transfers.
The larger battle over closing the prison entirely has become entangled in the proposed method and location for trying prominent detainees. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, one of the accused leaders of the 9/11 attacks, is perhaps the most well known. Attorney General Eric Holder announced several months ago that KSM, as the suspect is known, would be tried in a federal court, which sent critics into a frenzy, using the issue to bludgeon the Obama administration's handling of terrorist cases after the failed Christmas Day attack.
Members of Congress threatened to block funding for a criminal trial and the relocation of other suspects to U.S. prisons, and New York's mayor came out against a public trial in his city. The White House appeared to retract its support as well. Recently, reports surfaced of a deal in which a group of moderate senators from both parties would back relocating some of the Gitmo prisoners to the United States in exchange for an agreement from the Obama administration to drop plans for a civilian trial for KSM and other detainees and try them before a military commission instead.
Another development is illustrative of the problem the administration faces. Last week, a federal judge ordered the release of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a 39-year-old Mauritanian who was accused in the report by the 9/11 commission of having been a key al Qaeda recruiter. Earlier, prosecutors had considered seeking the death penalty in his case. But a judge in Washington this week issued a classified ruling that the government did not possess sufficient evidence to continue holding Slahi, who has reportedly been cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism officials. The ruling came after evidence surfaced several years ago that Slahi was beaten and psychologically tortured during his confinement in Gitmo. Interrogators not only threatened his life but also threatened at one point to find Slahi's mother and bring her to the prison, implying that she would be raped.
Holder announced late last week that the department would appeal the ruling, but the case faces an uphill battle in the courts. Yet another possibility is shipping Slahi off to a foreign country willing to accept him, a process similar to that used for the detainees transferred this week. However, Slahi's publicly admitted connections with al Qaeda make such an offer of foreign asylum unlikely.
- See photos of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.