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Complexity of Guantanamo means delay no surprise: experts

The admission that US President Barack Obama is unlikely to meet his deadline to close Guantanamo is no surprise to experts, who note the complexity of the problem bequeathed by his predecessor.

world Updated: Sep 29, 2009 13:00 IST

The admission that US President Barack Obama is unlikely to meet his deadline to close Guantanamo is no surprise to experts, who note the complexity of the problem bequeathed by his predecessor.

In interviews Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it was "going to be tough" to meet the January 22, 2010 closure deadline set out in an order that was among Obama's first official acts.

Gates said meeting the deadline "has proven more complicated than anticipated," but suggested that a delay "shouldn't be a problem" so long as "you have a strong plan showing you're making progress in that direction."

Of the some 800 men that have been held at Guantanamo since it began receiving prisoners in January 2002, 223 remain.

Officials have said around 80 of those will be repatriated or given asylum in third countries and some 60 detainees will face prosecution for alleged crimes.

For Obama, who made closing the "war on terror" prison camp of predecessor George W. Bush a campaign promise, the reality of shuttering the controversial facility has proven significantly more complicated than anticipated.

Officials charged with handling the closure have found themselves confronted with one obstacle after another -- scattered, disorganized case files, evidence obtained by coercive interrogation, and the ongoing failure to reach a diplomatic agreement with Sanaa to facilitate the repatriation of nearly 100 Yemeni detainees.

"We all recognize that this is a difficult prospect," said Denny LeBoeuf, director of the John Adams project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The previous administration sent 500 prisoners home, or somewhere without any system of review. The new administration won't do that."

Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights -- a rights group that has coordinated legal representation for many Guantanamo detainees -- said Obama had been facing a losing battle from the start.

"The practical realities are that this administration is finding out that the US should have engaged in diplomatic discussions with countries well before the election of Mr Obama. They are paying the price for that now," he said.

Both men said they believed the administration was working hard to close the facility.

Sarah Mendelson, the director of the human rights and security initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested the administration could have begun work on the issue a bit earlier.

"As the author of a report that recommended that it was going to take a year to close Guantanamo, by a year we meant twelve months, twelve working months of hard work," she said.

"They didn't start the kind of intense work that need to be done for several months."

Nonetheless, Mendelson said progress has been made, despite obstacles put in place by Congress, which required the administration to give 15 days notice of any plan to transfer a detainee out of Guantanamo, and six weeks notice if the plan was the move the detainee to the United States.

Since Obama came to office, 17 detainees have been sent home or to third countries, one committed suicide at the facility and another was transferred to New York to face trial before a civilian court.

The administration has said it plans to provide details by mid-November of which detainees it will try before civilian courts and which it will prosecute before reformed military tribunals.

Obama said earlier this year that a small group of detainees would likely be transferred to the United States and imprisoned without trial because the evidence against them could not be used to prosecute them, but they were considered too dangerous to release.

There are some signs that the administration may be moving away from that plan, with Republican lawmaker Pete Hoekstra saying Monday he has "received information corroborating a recent press report that the Obama administration has decided against plans to house terrorist detainees from Guantanamo Bay at the prison in Standish, Michigan."

Mendelson said she thought it unlikely that the administration would ultimately resort to detaining people without charge inside the United States.

"That would be moving Guantanamo, not closing it," she said. "I think they realized that and I really doubt they're going to go in this direction."