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Obama retains Guantanamo tribunals

US President Barack Obama revived Bush-era military tribunals for top Guantanamo Bay terror suspects that he once branded a 'failure,' but proposed new rules on evidence and detainee rights.

world Updated: May 16, 2009 07:43 IST

President Barack Obama on Friday revived Bush-era military tribunals for top Guantanamo Bay terror suspects that he once branded a "failure," but proposed new rules on evidence and detainee rights.

Rights campaigners reacted angrily, warning the move would prolong the "injustice" of the war on terror camp, days after Obama dismayed some backers by deciding to oppose the release of photos of Iraq and Afghan prison abuses.

"This is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply-held values," Obama said in a written statement outlining his reasoning and a set of reforms to the military commissions.

"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.

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

Last year however, then-candidate Obama had called the military commissions "an enormous failure."

The president said the Department of Defense would ask for extension of the suspension of military commissions to permit time for reforms.

Commissions were "appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered," Obama said.

He said he objected to 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.

Several key amendments will be made to the commissions system.

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

The party that offers hearsay evidence must now prove its reliability. In Bush-era trials the burden rested on the party that objected to it.

Furthermore, the accused will get greater latitude to choose his defense counsel and more protection if he refuses testify.

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

But the changes did not appease rights groups.

"The military commissions system is flawed beyond repair," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

"By resurrecting this failed Bush administration idea, President Obama is backtracking dangerously on his reform agenda."

The American Civil Liberties Union bemoaned a "striking blow to due process and the rule of law."

"President Obama would do well to remember his own infamous words during his presidential campaign: 'you can't put lipstick on a pig,'" said Anthony Romero, ACLU Executive Director.

Despite the improvements, the commissions "do not address fundamental concerns about the flawed nature of such tribunals," Human Rights Watch said.

"The very purpose of the commissions was to permit trials that lacked the full due process protections available to defendants in federal courts," it said.

But Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs denied the president was retooling a discredited Bush-era system.

"It's like saying 'I am buying the car, but changing the engine and painting it a different color' -- the notion that this is the same vehicle is simply not true."

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 assailed Obama's order to close the Guantanamo prison within a year. Democrats have rejected a White House funding request to shutter the prison until the president comes up with a concrete plan.

The top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell said Guantanamo Bay was the best venue to try terror suspects -- as opposition mounts in Congress to taking suspects to the United States.

"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.

Algerian detainee Lakhdar Boumediene, held for seven years at Guantanamo, left the US jail Friday for France.

Boumediene, 42, was cleared of wrongdoing in November.

First Published: May 16, 2009 07:40 IST