The Obama administration could bring foreign terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay prison to the United States but only if they are to face prosecution, under a measure that cleared Congress yesterday.
The Senate’s 79 to 19 vote removed one of the many roadblocks the government faces as it tries to empty the internationally condemned prison by January.
The measure, included in a $42.8 billion bill to fund the Homeland Security Department, passed the House of Representatives last week and now heads to the White House for President Obama to sign into law.
Obama ordered the detention camp closed on his second day in office but administration officials have run into numerous legal, political and diplomatic hurdles.
Not least among those has been Congress, even though Obama’s fellow Democrats control the House and the Senate.
Many Republicans have objected to plans to house terrorism suspects in US prisons, worrying that they could invite additional terrorist attacks.
Some also argued that the detainees do not deserve American legal protections and say they should be tried in military tribunals at Guantanamo, a US Navy base on Cuba.
The compromise passed by both chambers of Congress would allow the government to bring Guantanamo inmates to US soil only if they are going to face trial in American courts.
The administration would have to present a risk assessment and give 45 days’ notice.
Those cleared of wrongdoing without trial could not be resettled within the United States.
The Guantanamo prison has been condemned worldwide for harsh treatment of its prisoners, and administration officials have argued that it serves as a recruiting symbol for groups like al Qaeda.
Roughly 220 prisoners remain in the facility, which was opened after the September 11 attacks.
Not all of them will face criminal prosecution. Some could be tried instead in military tribunals, while others who have been cleared of wrongdoing could be resettled in countries willing to take them.
Some 17 Chinese Muslims currently at Guantanamo have pressed for resettlement within the United States, over the objections of the Obama administration, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear their case.
A United Nations official, Manfred Nowak, said Tuesday that European countries should help out by accepting detainees for resettlement.
Authorities have already transferred one prisoner, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, to New York for trial on charges of conspiring in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people.
The bill would also allow the Pentagon to block the release of photographs showing the abuse of terrorism suspects, which have figured prominently in several scandals.
Pic: Guantanamo bay prisoners