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Homeland Security

Guantanamo Much Changed Since Terror Attacks on US

18 September 2007

The U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is surrounded by controversy. Suspects in America's war on terrorism are held there, and not only do human rights groups criticize the detentions, but criticism also is coming from within the Pentagon. Nathan King has more for VOA.

When cameras are allowed into Guantanamo, the military is keen to stress that things have changed from the months just after September 11th, 2001.

This is what is left of Camp X-Ray -- the detention facility that human rights groups initially criticized as inhumane.

It is now abandoned and replaced with modern facilities that house state-of-the-art hospitals, classrooms and new cells.

Opposition now is not so much focused on the conditions at Guantanamo Bay, but on the legal process that terrorist suspects face.

Following U.S. Supreme Court rulings that rejected the White House's claim that detainees are beyond the reach of U.S. and international law, Bush administration officials put in place a military commission system that allows detainees to challenge the charges against them.

And part of the the plan -- Pentagon lawyers to represent the detainees.

Military lawyers, like Lieutenant Commander Bill Keubler, work for the U.S. government, but they also are challenging it. "This is not a court martial system. This is something that is created for the limited purpose of trying these folks in Guantanamo Bay. It doesn't meet the standards and criteria that we employ under our regular courts martial. "

Keubler represented Omar Khadar -- just 15 when he was detained in Afghanistan. Khadar was one of 10 Guantanamo inmates selected to face military commissions for allegedly being an enemy combatant fighting with the Taleban. "The government has consistently said that Guantanamo is justified because it holds the worst of the worst and we look at the first 10 detainees that have been charged and they hardly meet that definition."

The Bush administration defends the use of military commissions -- saying all those charged were involved in terrorism. Review board director Captain Gary Haben says, "You'll commonly hear that, 'Well, he was just a foot soldier.' Well, OK, foot soldiers are capable of doing harm."

Haben adds that every detainee's status is reevaluated each year and those who no longer constitute a threat are released. "We have transferred more detainees off the island than we currently hold. We've had almost up to 800 detainees come to the island. Right now we have only 375."

The Bush administration says it is working towards shutting down the detention center at Guantanamo, but that may not be easy. "The Geneva Convention says we are allowed to detain enemy combatants through the hostilities and the requirement is that when the hostilities are over you must release or repatriate them. However, in this war, there is no end in sight," said Haben.

Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell is among those who contend U.S. civilian courts should handle terrorist suspects. And military attorney Bill Keubler argues that just closing Guantanamo is not enough. He says the whole system of military commissions needs to be scrapped.

Haben counters by saying, "Even if they closed Guantanamo and they moved folks to other camps in the U.S. -- in Kansas or South Carolina -- to try them by military commission, it's still the same military commission process, it still has those defects. It still has those flaws. It is still not a regular court."

Critics of the military commissions point to civilian trials of terror suspects like those who were convicted of the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa as evidence that the U.S. federal courts can handle justice when it comes to terrorism. But some in the Bush administration continue to maintain that this new kind of war that the U.S. is fighting in the wake of the September 11th attacks needs a new approach.

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