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Closure of Guantanamo Bay could turn some detainees into U.S. residents

For countries to feel comfortable taking some prisoners off American hands, the U.S. has to show it is OK by taking some itself, human rights advocates say. The Obama team is considering the move.

January 15, 2009|Julian E. Barnes and Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — Human rights advocates are urging the incoming Obama administration to allow some detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to resettle as U.S. residents as part of any plan to close the controversial facility.

Taking such a step would go beyond plans outlined so far to close the prison and transfer detainees to other countries or to military prisons on the U.S. mainland. But allowing a small number -- perhaps only two or three -- to live freely in the U.S. could help persuade other countries to accept some of them as well.

"If we want European and other countries to feel comfortable taking at least some of the prisoners off American hands, the U.S. will have to show it is OK by taking some itself," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

President-elect Barack Obama's transition team is considering the option, but a Democratic official said there has been no conclusion that the resettlement option is necessary to Obama's plans.

Under the plans, Obama would issue an executive order within a week of assuming the presidency to close Guantanamo in a year, according to Democratic officials speaking on condition of anonymity because he has not yet taken office. That would give the government time to persuade other countries to take some of the detainees who no longer are considered to be a serious threat. It also would give the administration time to prepare prosecutions for other detainees in U.S. courts or in court-martial proceedings.

The incoming administration has decided to abandon the military commission system devised under President Bush, which has produced three convictions in seven years. Brooke Anderson, a transition spokeswoman, said Obama would decide how to handle detainees after his administration was in place.

"President-elect Obama has repeatedly said that he believes that the legal framework at Guantanamo has failed to successfully and swiftly prosecute terrorists, and he shares the broad bipartisan belief that Guantanamo should be closed," she said.

With time to send many of the prisoners to other countries, the plan could avert a mass transfer of the 250 detainees to a U.S. military facility, most likely at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., or Charleston, S.C. It also could avoid the need for a new federal law that allows indefinite detention of prisoners without trial, something the incoming administration has ruled out for now.

Under the plans, only detainees who are to be prosecuted would be sent to U.S. prisons. As Justice Department lawyers prepare cases for trial, the State Department will work to transfer others to their home country or to other countries. Detainees cannot be returned to their home country if doing so would put them at risk of torture.

Many Guantanamo detainees have complained of torture during their captivity; Obama has said that tainted evidence cannot be used at trial.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Washington ordered the release of a 21-year-old former Saudi resident who has been in custody since he was 14, saying evidence against him was unreliable. U.S. officials might appeal the ruling.

The transfer process has proved difficult for the Bush administration. Although the State Department may have better results under Obama, it still will face difficulty placing prisoners once described by the U.S. as terrorist threats.

Elisa Massimino, the executive director of Human Rights First, said resettling a few detainees in the U.S would be a wise move for Obama.

"After seven years of being fed the line that everyone there is the worst of the worst, it would help enormously if the United States would set an example that would put the lie to that, by taking one or two of the people," she said.

Allowing former detainees to live freely in the U.S. probably would be controversial. But Massimino said public concern might ease if the Obama administration were to explain the background of those allowed into the U.S.

"There will be opposition, but the facts can overcome that," Massimino said.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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