Guantanamo camp to close, White House sources claim
THE Bush administration is nearing a decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and move terrorist suspects to military prisons on US soil, it was reported last night.
Senior White House officials claimed that George Bush's top national security and legal advisers were to discuss the move at the White House today.
It was claimed the meeting - apparently to include Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and the vice-president, Dick Cheney - would consider a new proposal to shut the controversial centre and transfer detainees to one or more US defence department facilities.
But soon after the claims emerged, the White House rushed to deny there would be an immediate decision.
Officials did, however, concede that Mr Bush favoured closing the controversial prison.
"No decisions on the future of Guantanamo Bay are imminent, and there will not be a White House meeting tomorrow," the White House spokesman Scott Stanzel insisted.
"The president has long expressed a desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to do so in a responsible way," he added.
"A number of steps need to take place before that can happen, such as setting up military commissions and the repatriation to their home countries of detainees who have been cleared for release. These and other steps have not been completed."
Mr Bush has said he wants to close the facility as soon as possible and is keenly aware of its shortcomings.
His wife, Laura, and his mother, the former first lady Barbara Bush, as well as senior advisers and diplomats have told him it is a blot on the US record abroad, particularly among Muslims and European allies.
And Ms Rice has said she would like to see Guantanamo closed if a safe alternative could be found.
But previous plans to close the Guantanamo prison have run into fierce resistance from Mr Cheney, Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, and the former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But officials last night said the new suggestion was gaining momentum, with at least tacit support from the state and homeland security departments, the Pentagon, and the US intelligence directorate.
Mr Cheney's office and the justice department have remained opposed, arguing that moving "unlawful" enemy combatant suspects to the US would give them undeserved legal rights.
They could still block the proposal, but have been forced on to the back foot, partly because of international pressure, but also because of a series decisions made by US courts.
A supreme court decision last year found a previous system for prosecuting enemy combatants illegal. And recent rulings by military judges that threw out charges against two terror suspects under a new tribunal scheme, dealt a blow to the administration's efforts to begin prosecuting dozens of Guantanamo detainees regarded as the nation's most dangerous terrorist suspects.
Congressional Democrats, now in the majority, and some Republicans also have taken up the cause.
"The damage done to the United States goes beyond undermining our status as a global leader on human rights," said Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, last night.
Several recently introduced pieces of proposed legislation would require Guantanamo's closure and one would designate Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, as the new detention site.
"The push has reached a high point," one official was quoted as saying last night.
"Something has to be done, and we want it done quickly."
The Guantanamo Bay prison has been a flash point for criticism of the Bush administration at home and abroad. It was set up in 2002 to house terror suspects captured in military operations, mostly in Afghanistan.
UNDER THE INTERNATIONAL SPOTLIGHT
THE US high-security camp at Guantanamo Bay has come under intense international scrutiny since it first took in foreign detainees on 11 January, 2002.
Those held at the naval base are accused by the Bush administration of being involved in terrorism by supporting Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
Images of prisoners, shackled, hooded and wearing orange overalls, were shown worldwide and raised human rights issues.
The US was criticised for holding inmates without trial and for alleged mistreatment. As "enemy combatants", detainees are not allowed the same rights as prisoners-of-war or US citizens accused of crimes. Pentagon officials maintain they are entitled to hold enemy combatants without charge or trial for the duration of the hostilities.
The US defence department refused to release names and nationalities of inmates until March 2006. They were revealed after a Freedom of Information Act request by the AP news agency.
Last year, the US said that it wanted to try detainees by military tribunal, but human-rights groups raised doubts over the fairness of trials.
The camp currently has almost 400 detainees from about 40 countries - mostly from Muslim states.
But UK, French and Russian and citizens are also being detained.
Bisher al-Rawi, 39, a UK resident, was released from the camp in April of this year, while Jamil el-Banna, 43, a British refugee from Jordan, is still being held there.
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