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23 May, 2013 01:52

Obama mulls resuming Guantanamo prison transfers - reports

Obama mulls resuming Guantanamo prison transfers - reports

Ahead of a major speech by President Obama involving US counterterrorism operations, the White House has indicated that it will include a plan to renew prisoner transfers out of Guantanamo Bay, with the ultimate goal of shuttering the prison.

Just as the Pentagon is requesting an additional $450 million in funding to keep the detention center running, the administration seems ready to push for the transfer of prisoners to their home country.

“The president is considering a range of options for ways that we can reduce the population there and move towards ultimate closure - some of which we can take on our own, but some of which will require working with the Congress," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.

Obama, who has long placed blame on Congress for the continued presence of detainees at Guantanamo, made the closure of the military facility a campaign pledge during his 2008 run.

"That's an excuse," said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch.

"We're at the point now where I think the president realizes he has to take what action he can before he works with Congress. They'll be more amenable once they've seen he's actually done something," added Prasow.

Lifting the ban on Gitmo-Yemen transfers?

Currently, of the 166 detainees still held at Guantanamo 86 have already been cleared for transfer, including 56 Yemenis, who constitute the largest single group. The Pentagon has thus far transferred only a handful of detainees whose release has been ordered by courts.

The administration had specifically halted transfers to Yemen following the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner by members of a Yemen branch of Al-Qaeda in December 2009.

In a letter addressed to national security adviser Tom Donilon in late April Senator Feinstein had requested resumption of transfers of detainees to Yemen, citing continued support by that country’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in continued operations against Al-Qaeda. In the last few years, Yemen has become a primary theater of operations by the US in drone strikes against terrorist targets.

Although Al Qaeda “still has a strong presence in Yemen, I believe it would be prudent to revisit the decision to halt transfers to Yemen and assess whether President Hadi’s government, with appropriate assistance, would be able to securely hold detainees in Sana,” wrote Feinstein.

According to the Wall Street Journal, resumption of transfers out of Guantanamo is likely to begin with non-Yemeni detainees, citing current and former officials. That would give Yemen’s government time to build up a rehabilitation and oversight program.

Widespread hunger strike adds urgency

Perhaps placing an even greater impetus on new policy for Guantanamo Bay is the ongoing hunger strike by 103 detainees, of which 31 are being forcibly fed through tubes.

The hunger strike has resulted in a number of detainees being hospitalized within the base, and human rights groups have been increasingly vocal regarding the force feeding practice, which includes painful nasal tube inserts and restraints.

Follow RT’s day-by-day timeline of the Gitmo hunger strike.

A view of a common area at the medium security prison inside Camp IV at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base (Reuters)

Human rights advocates believe that detainees from Afghanistan could be among the first transferred out of Guantanamo. The WSJ reported that the US government has already been in talks with that country’s government regarding prisoner transfers.

Supporters for the closure of the detention facility seem thus far cautious ahead of Obama’s Thursday speech.

"He needs to make it clear he is serious this time. He promised the same thing four years ago. What makes this different? The transfers are what make this different," said Prasow.

Moreover, the announcement for a renewed push to wind down the prison is not likely to be received well by some lawmakers, such as Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, who has spearheaded efforts to block transfers out of Guantanamo Bay.

"We know there is significant Al-Qaeda activity in Yemen," she said. "I obviously have some serious questions about Yemen."

Transfers out of Guantanamo slowed considerably in 2011 after Congress imposed tough requirements. As a result, there was a single transfer in 2011, four transfers in 2012 and none so far in 2013.

Administration officials have said the president will finally fill a vacant State Department position tasked with overseeing the transfer of detainees, as well as recommend a review board to resume transferal cases.

In January, the U.S. State Department re-assigned Daniel Fried, the special envoy who had been in charge of persuading countries to take Guantanamo inmates approved for transfer.

That vacancy was viewed by both Guantanamo inmates and human rights group as a flagrant sign that the administration did not consider shuttering Guantanamo a priority.