US lawmakers reached an agreement yesterday that would allow the Obama administration to bring more terrorism suspects from the Guantanamo Bay prison to the United States to face trial.
The agreement removes one of many roadblocks the administration faces as it tries to empty the internationally condemned prison by January.
The measure will face a tough vote in the House of Representatives, which voted last week to keep suspects held at the detention centre at the US naval base in Cuba off US soil entirely.
Democratic negotiators from the House and Senate included the language in a $42.8 billion bill that would fund the Homeland Security Department for the current fiscal year over the objection of Republicans. It must still pass both chambers before President Barack Obama can sign it into law.
The measure would also allow the Pentagon to block the release of photos showing the abuse of terrorism suspects, which have figured prominently in several scandals.
Under the measure, the administration would be required to present a risk assessment and give 14 days’ notice before bringing any of the 223 detainees remaining in the facility to the United States to face charges in American courtrooms.
Not all of those remaining 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.
Obama ordered the controversial detention camp closed on his second day in office in January and gave administration officials a year to do it, but they have run into numerous legal, political and diplomatic hurdles.
Guantanamo prison, long condemned by human rights groups, opened in 2002 under President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Authorities have transferred one prisoner, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, to the United States for trial in New York on charges of conspiring in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people.
Congress has also on several occasions denied the administration the money it needs to shut down the facility until it presents a detailed plan.
‘Prisoners of war’
At a meeting to hammer out differences between the House and Senate versions of the underlying bill, Republicans said that allowing suspects to face trial in the United States could create security risks and extend American legal protections to those who do not deserve them.
“They’re prisoners of war caught trying to kill our troops. They’re not just common criminals,” said Republican Representative Hal Rogers, who said they should stand trial at Guantanamo.
Backers such as Democratic Representative David Price said US prisons were secure enough to hold terrorism suspects and argued that closing the prison would take away a powerful recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other extremist groups.
Dozens of Democrats joined Rogers and other House Republicans last week to pass a nonbinding measure that instructed negotiators to include language that would keep detainees out of the United States entirely.
Democratic leaders must now figure out a way to switch those votes.
Democratic Representative David Obey, who chairs the committee that oversees spending, said leaders were weighing various strategies to ensure it passes.
“That decision will be made above my pay grade and on the basis of what will lead to the most rapid possible passage of the bill,” he said.