Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Endgame At Guantanamo

The man who was allegedly the main plotter behind the 9/11 attacks on the US has told a pre-trial hearing that he wants to plead guilty. Four of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's co-defendants have done the same. This all happened in a military tribunal at America's Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba, where the men and hundreds of others have been held for several years.

Most of the people held in such controversial circumstances at Guantanamo since 2001 are, if not entirely innocent, certainly guilty of not much more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time - Afghanistan in the winter of 2001/02, when a large number of them were arrested. The story of the Tipton Three, three young British men who apparently got caught up in the excitement of the time and ended up in the Taliban sronghold of Kunduz as the Northern Alliance closed in, is not unusual. It's been the detention of those suspects and others like them that's caused such damage to America's international reputation.

KSM and the other four are different. These are the real senior bad guys the US had in mind when it set up the detention centre at Guantanamo. But all the evidence suggests suspects of that level are in a significant minority, perhaps only a few dozen of the men held at the base. However, with President-elect Obama having already said he intends to close Guantanamo, the issue of what to do with these suspected al Qaeda operatives will no doubt be troubling him.

Mr Obama's got two groups of people to worry about most as he ponders how exactly to close Guantanamo. The first group is those men with stories like the Tipton Three's who are still held at the base, either because their home countries refuse to accept them back, or because the US knows the men would be tortured if they were returned to those countries. Beyond offering these men asylum in the US, it's difficult to see what Mr Obama can do. That would undoubtedly be a huge risk as, even though most of the men probably have no intention of carrying out any kind of terrorist act, there's always a chance one or two or more might.

Then there's those 80 or so real bad guys. Suggestions from the Obama team point towards putting them on trial in some kind of hybrid military/civilian court, possibly in America itself, possibly not. The major difficulty in getting convictions (in cases in which the defendants don't plead guilty) will be the use of torture on the suspects during their period of detention. Any half-decent defence lawyer should be able to pick plenty of holes in any prosecution case containing evidence gleaned from such interrogations. But however Mr Obama decides to resolve those problems, it seems as though we're now entering the endgame for Guantanamo.

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