For those who have long advocated and agitated for the closure of the Guantánamo Bay prison camp, today is a day to savor. Keeping his campaign promise, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order to shut down the prison within a year and to halt the use of controversial interrogation techniques. "The message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism and we are going to do so vigilantly," Obama said at a signing ceremony in the Oval Office. "We are going to do so ... in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals." The news will undoubtedly be welcomed by human rights advocates and those who have long held that Gitmo tainted America's reputation in the world.
Now comes the hard part. The Obama Administration must go through a veritable obstacle course of legal and logistical difficulties before it can remove the last detainee and consign the much reviled prison to history. "After the signature, that's when you face the practical difficulties," says Vijay Padmanabhan, a visiting professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and former counsel on detainee issues to the State Department. How long could it take? Experts consulted by TIME say there's a good chance there will still be some detainees at the prison deep into 2009, and possibly into 2010. (See pictures from inside Guantánamo Bay.)
With Gitmo's death warrant now signed, here's what needs to be done before the final execution:
Review Every Case
First, the Obama Administration must re-examine all the case files and decide which detainees to prosecute in the U.S., which to transfer to the custody of another government and which to simply release. There are nearly 250 detainees left, ranging from hard-core jihadists like Khalid Sheik Mohammed who pleaded guilty to masterminding the 9/11 attacks to a group of 17 Uighur dissidents from China who even the Pentagon says represent no threat to the U.S. President Obama wants a Cabinet-level committee to lead the reviews. A report by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) recommends that the new President appoint a "panel of eminent Americans" to sort through the cases. Some human rights groups have suggested that the new Attorney General do the sorting.
Figure Out Where to Hold Trials
For a variety of reasons, it is probable that a large number of detainees cannot be tried in the U.S. not least because the manner of their arrest and their treatment at Gitmo would not meet the standards of any federal court. But the Obama Administration will be reluctant to send detainees back to their home countries, especially if the governments in those countries don't measure up to international human rights norms. Some governments simply don't want any detainees back, and others are likely to release them without trial. (A Pentagon spokesman said recently that 61 of the 500 detainees already released from Gitmo may have returned to the jihad.)
The Obama Administration will want to send some detainees to third countries. But many nations especially those in Europe have been reluctant to take them in the past. The President's team is counting on the goodwill generated by Obama's election to break down some European resistance. But, says Padmanabhan, "if you're Germany, the real reason you don't want to take Gitmo detainees is not that you hate Bush but that your own parliament and people don't want these guys running around on your soil."
It will fall to the new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to persuade third countries to take detainees. Some may have to be resettled in the U.S. not least because it would encourage other countries to do the same. Human rights groups say the Uighurs are the most likely candidates for resettlement in the U.S. but that would outrage China, which regards them as terrorists.