Foreign Policy Blogs

From Gitmo to Federal District Court

The Obama administration took a major step today in fulfilling its promise to close the discredited Guantanamo Bay detention center and follow the rule of law with the announcement that five detainees charged with planning the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the USS Cole will be prosecuted by a federal court in the Southern District of New York.   

The five detainees in question — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin ‘Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi — have already been charged by the military commissions established under the Bush administration, but the change of venue to federal court places their legal fate in civilian hands.  The lack of civilian justice in terrorism cases thus far has been a major issue for human rights groups who questioned the fairness of the military commissions and their ability to meet international legal standards.  

The decision is a big one, and wrought with legal and political risk.  But for now it is being hailed by several rights groups and online commentators, including Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, and The Constitution Project.  According to the Associated Press, there are still 215 detainees being held at Guantanamo while an estimated 565 have been released since the prison opened in 2002.  Of these, about 65 are considered to be viable for civilian prosecution, meaning that some detainees will still be processed by the military commissions.  This was confirmed when the Justice Department also announced on Friday that five other detainees would proceed with their trials under the military commissions.  However, the fact that this administration is willing to allow some of the most high profile detainees be prosecuted publicly under a civilian judge is a good sign that the US is on the right path to balancing security with human rights in the age of terrorism.    

Further links of interest:

Transcript of Attorney General Eric Holder’s press conference, courtesy of The Globe and Mail  

“Getting Back on Track to Close Guantanamo: How to Get to Zero” — new report by the Center for American Progress  

Interview in Rolling Stone with Tom Andrews, director of the National Campaign to Close Guantanamo on the Justice Department’s decision



Kimberly J. Curtis
Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa

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