President Obama approves indefinite detention without charge and resumes ‘kangaroo court’ military trials in Guantánamo Bay

March 8, 2011

In a major setback for the legal and moral standing of the USA, President Obama has lifted the suspension of Bush-era military trials for prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay.

Breaking his promise to curb the damaging lawlessness of US counter-terrorism policy, President Obama has now ensured that the US justice system will once more be beamed around the world in the form of ‘kangaroo courts’ conducted by military officers with a military officer presiding.

In a yet sadder climbdown, President Obama has signed an executive order proposing to legalise Guantánamo’s widely-decried practice of indefinite detention without charge. The policy realigns the US with rights-abusing countries and sets it once more at odds with the values of its European allies.

The Obama Administration’s military review system allows cases to be reconsidered after the first year and then every three years thereafter. The system mimics the Combatant Status Review Tribunals set up by the Bush administration in 2004, which were struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 2008. Yet at least under the old version the inadequate review of the prisoner’s status was annual.

When the President took office in January 2009, he repeatedly promised to close the Guantánamo Bay prison within one year and to allow terror suspects to be tried in federal civilian courts on the US mainland. The President’s efforts have largely been blocked by Congress and his Administration has appeared willing to concede the issue in order to buy co-operation for his other legislative agenda.

Some 172 detainees remain in Guantánamo, of whom fewer than 40 are eligible for trial in either criminal courts or military commissions. Under President Bush the military commissions became something of a laughing stock, with only a handful of cases ever completed under them. The new military commissions are not readily distinguishable from the old version, as they still depend on “crimes” that were belatedly created and retroactively applied, and allow the admission of evidence that would be excluded as coerced in a regular court.

Reprieve’s Director Clive Stafford Smith said:

“At a time when we are seeking to encourage other countries to embrace democracy and the rule of law, US military trials at Guantánamo Bay will comfort despots and dictators everywhere. Perhaps soon there will be indefinite detention of terrorist suspects on small islands off Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere. By abandoning the pursuit of genuine justice, the US has shown a lack of courage in its convictions and still less faith in its constitution.”

Reprieve’s Guantánamo Director Cori Crider said:

“Put yourself in the shoes of the vast majority of prisoners. You are approaching a decade in prison. For over two years, your jailor has been a man who campaigned on a promise to see you freed. Many prisoners have already ‘passed’ one review by this administration and are stuck for reasons of pure politics. Many others will never reach the military commissions, because the administration holds insufficient evidence to reach the military’s laughably low standard of proof. President Obama has simply put to paper what he had already done in practice: waved the white flag on the notion of justice at Guantánamo. A sad day.”


Notes for Editors:

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 27 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve has represented, and continues to represent, a large number of prisoners who have been rendered and abused around the world, and is conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’


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