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Obama says he will retain military tribunals for terror suspects

Latest update : 2009-05-17

US President Barack Obama said on Friday that Bush-era military tribunals will continue to try some terror suspects being held in Guantanamo Bay but has promised to expand the scope of detainee rights.

AFP - President Barack Obama said Friday he will retain Bush-era military commissions to try Guantanamo Bay terror suspects but changed rules on evidence and detainee rights in a bid to harmonize them with US values.

But civil liberties and human rights groups are likely to react with outrage to a decision some will see as a climb-down, reflecting the political and legal conundrum Obama faces as he attempts to reform the US legal "war on terror."

Obama said in a written statement the Pentagon would ask for a current suspension of military commissions to be extended to permit time for reforms to the system used to try top Al-Qaeda detainees.

"These reforms will begin to restore the commissions as a legitimate forum for prosecution, while bringing them in line with the rule of law," Obama said.

"This is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply-held values."

Obama halted the Guantanamo military tribunals pending a review soon after taking office in January, saying the system did not work, but did not rule out the use of a modified tribunal system in future.

On the campaign trail last year however, then-candidate Obama had called the military commissions "an enormous failure."

Obama maintained in his statement that military commissions were "appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered."

He argued that he objected to the Bush administration commissions because they "failed to establish a legitimate legal framework and undermined our capability to ensure swift and certain justice" against detainees.

"The system of military commissions at Guantanamo Bay had only succeeded in prosecuting three suspected terrorists in more than seven years," Obama said.

The president proposed several key amendments to the commissions system.

Firstly, statements using CIA interrogation methods that are "cruel, inhumane and degrading" -- since outlawed by Obama -- will no longer be admitted as evidence at trial.

The new arrangements will also now require the party that offers hearsay evidence to prove its reliability, rather than the other way around as was the case in Bush-era trials which put the burden on the party that objected to it.

Under Obama-era tribunals, the accused will be allowed greater latitude in choosing his defense counsel and greater protection will be given to any suspect that refuses to testify.

Military commission judges will also be allowed to establish the jurisdiction of their own courts.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters the president had decided to reform the military commissions as an available forum "along with the federal courts for prosecution of detainees at Guantanamo."

"These rule changes do not require a change in law. But the law does require the Department of Defense give Congress 60 days notice before the rules can be implemented."

The move would affect, among others, five detainees charged with having played key roles in the September 11, 2001 attacks, including the plot's self-proclaimed mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Republicans have fiercely assailed Obama's order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay by late January next year, and Democrats have rejected a White House funding request to shutter the prison until the president provides a concrete proposal on closing the facility.

Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement after the president's decision on military tribunals, noting that despite the order to close Guantanamo Bay, it was the best venue to try terror suspects.

"Given the disruption and potential dangers caused by bringing terror suspects into American communities, the secure, modern courtroom at Guantanamo Bay is the appropriate place for commission proceedings," McConnell said.

The camp, synonymous around the world with Bush's "war on terror" excesses, still holds 241 inmates from 30 different countries, according to the Pentagon.

Some rights groups have called on the administration to prosecute Al-Qaeda detainees in regular civilian US courts, but opponents have warned that some evidence, possibly obtained under coercion, would not stand up.

The tribunals cannot be fixed by changing some rules, said Rob Freer of Amnesty International.

"You cannot revamp a system that is, in essence, unfair," Freer said in a statement.

Date created : 2009-05-15