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Order to shut Guantanamo big step, questions remain: analysts

US President Barack Obama's order to close Guantanamo Bay prison was welcomed across the world, but rights groups and legal experts wonder what to do with the 245 detainees still held there

world Updated: Jan 23, 2009 08:34 IST

US President Barack Obama's order to close Guantanamo Bay prison was welcomed across the world, but rights groups and legal experts wonder what to do with the 245 detainees still held there.

"This is a terrific start, a giant step on the path to restoring justice," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after Obama signed three executive orders just two days into his presidency, including one to shutter the controversial prison within a year.

"We are concerned by legal ambiguities in the order to shutter Guantanamo, and some may say the one-year timeline may be too long," Romero added.

Stephen Vladeck, an associate professor of law at American University in Washington, said closing the war-on-terror prison was "a good goal to aspire to... but that only begs the question about what you are going to do with the people who are still held there."

"Until we know where they are going to send the 200-plus people who are still there, it's hard to make sense of this," he said.

The two other executive orders called for a high-level task force to determine if prisoners still held at Guantanamo should be released, tried or transferred, and revoked an executive order passed by president George W. Bush in 2007, loosening Washington's obligations to protect and humanely treat prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

Obama's decision was widely applauded around the world.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the decision "extremely encouraging," and urged a probe into allegations of torture at Guantanamo, while the Czech presidency of the European Union praised the move as "symbolic and practical."

Amnesty International chief Irene Khan said Obama's order was "an important step in the right direction" and would be "closing a dark chapter" in US history.

Muslim leaders were more cautious. In Afghanistan, president Hamid Karzai's office would not comment, while neighboring Pakistan called Obama's decision "good." Libya said it had asked Washington to repatriate nine Libyans held since 2002 in Guantanamo.

Obama also ordered the shutting down of all CIA secret prisons abroad.

Signing the orders in the opening days of his administration was a sign that Obama wanted to make a "clean break from Bush policy" and was trying to "secure diplomatic goodwill abroad," said Matthew Waxman of Columbia Law School in New York.

"He'll need that goodwill to close Guantanamo because our allies will need to shoulder some responsibility," he said.

The ACLU's Romero told AFP any suspects still held at Guantanamo when the controversial prison is closed must either be "repatriated to their countries of origin, as long as they won't be tortured, or we must find third party solutions or take responsibility and bring them to the United States."

If they are brought to the United States, they "must be transferred to real American courts, charged, tried and convicted under established law," he said.

"And if the federal government cannot secure conviction with its vast resources and eight years of intelligence-gathering, then the American way requires that those individuals who are not convicted of a crime must be released," Romero added.

Several countries including Spain and Switzerland have said they would consider taking in Guantanamo detainees, while others, such as Germany, have said the facility on Cuba's southeastern coast was America's problem to clean up.

Portugal said last month it was ready to accept Guantanamo detainees, while in Paris a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday that France should join countries prepared to host former Guantanamo inmates.

Obama's decision to set a year-long timeline for shuttering Guantanamo could be due to the sheer weight of cases that need to be reviewed, said Sarah Cleveland of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School.

"A review of 240 files, determinations regarding whom to prosecute, and a diplomatic process for the remaining detainees would take some time. This may be the explanation for some of the delay in closing Guantanamo," she said.

"Also, we don't know at this point whether the administration will conclude that some detainees remain extremely dangerous but for some reason cannot be criminally prosecuted, and, if so, how that situation will be addressed," she said.

First Published: Jan 23, 2009 08:30 IST