Rather than shutting Guantanamo, the U.S. military is gearing up for the war-crimes trial of a former child soldier at the navy base on southeastern Cuba this summer.
The case of detainee Omar Khadr highlights how President Barack Obama has struggled to carry out a pledge he made immediately after taking office to close the globally unpopular military prison, which he called a recruiting tool for terrorists.
But if some trials are to proceed without delay, there is no other viable location, thanks to congressional opposition to moving terror detainees to U.S. soil, plus the time required to buy and renovate an Illinois prison — the one place where they would be welcome.
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"The prosecutors in Khadr's case have informed us that if the trial takes place in July 2010, it will be held at Guantanamo," said Army Maj. Jon Jackson, one of the detainee's Pentagon-appointed attorneys.
Court proceedings against Khadr, who is accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan, are farthest along. But pretrial hearings are anticipated for several other detainees at Guantanamo this year.
Obama's order just two days into his presidency to close the prison by Jan. 22, 2010, was a symbolic break from Bush administration anti-terrorism policies, which Obama said cost the U.S. its stature around the world. But the president has had trouble lining up help from other countries and even his own political party. Republicans and some Democrats have vehemently opposed moving terror suspects to U.S. soil, citing security fears. About 50 detainees have been transferred to other countries under Obama. But the administration is still trying to reach a repatriation agreement with Yemen, a country that accounts for nearly half the remaining 198 detainees.
Meanwhile, the president has directed the government to acquire and upgrade the Thomson Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility in rural western Illinois, for some detainees. But it's not clear if Congress will approve the funds. Even if it does, authorities say it would take up to 10 months to upgrade security and add a courtroom there.
"The military can do some great things, but I don't see that happening before July," Jackson said.
Human rights advocates said more trials at Guantanamo would revive international criticism of the U.S.
"It's troubling not only that there will be a delay in closing Guantanamo, but also that there are preparations for trials taking place in Guantanamo, a place that symbolizes a lack of lawfulness and human rights violations over the last seven years," said Jamil Dakwar, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Prosecutors are continuing to prepare cases that will go before military commissions "regardless of a trial location," said Joseph DellaVedova, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions.
Khadr is one of five inmates facing charges in the military courts, known as commissions, that were launched under the Bush administration following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The commissions were widely criticized because they denied defendants most of the rights they would be granted in a civilian courtroom or even in a traditional military court martial. But the Obama administration recently revised the system to expand legal protections for defendants.
The Toronto-born son of an alleged al-Qaida financier, Khadr was captured when he was 15 and accused of throwing a grenade that killed U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer of Albuquerque, New Mexico, during a 2002 battle in Afghanistan.
As with many of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo, the U.S. has limited options for Khadr.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has refused to request his return, despite pressure from courts and opposition parties to do so because of his young age. Khadr also has maintained that his statements to interrogators were obtained through abuse, an argument that could carry more weight in civilian U.S. courts that bar evidence obtained under coercion.
Some detainees are expected to face trial in U.S. federal courts, including self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged henchmen. But so far only one inmate has been transferred to New York for trial. Other prisoners are expected to be held indefinitely because they are considered too dangerous and their cases too compromised for prosecution.
At Guantanamo, officials say they are ready for a return to the spotlight after a lull in court proceedings since Obama took office.
Personnel are in place to provide support for any court action at Guantanamo, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, a spokesman for the detention mission in Cuba. An Air Force expeditionary unit also has been helping to maintain the Camp Justice complex that includes a high-security courthouse and tents for support staff, attorneys and journalists.
"We'll just keep everything on track," DeWalt said. "If a particular hearing is turned on, we'll adjust fire and have our personnel ready to roll with that particular mission."
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