No getting out of Gitmo: U.S. can’t release detainees to state sponsors of terrorism

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For a president eager to close the site entirely, Noor Uthman Mohammad should be one of the easier Guantanamo Bay detainee cases to clear.

Captured in Pakistan in 2002 and accused of helping run an al Qaeda training camp, Noor, as he is referred to in court documents, pleaded guilty in 2011 to charges that he supported terrorism. He is scheduled to complete his 34-month sentence next winter.

But Noor is Sudanese, and the federal government officially lists Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism. Under the latest defense policy law, President Obama and other U.S. authorities cannot repatriate any of the detainees to a country on that list.

“Unless the law is changed, he will remain there at the expiration of his sentence,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch.

Noor’s case is part of the complex political and legal puzzle that Mr. Obama must solve as he looks to provide some sort of closure for the 166 detainees at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where many are taking part in a hunger strike to protest their detentions.

Speaking at the National Defense University last week, Mr. Obama said the prison has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law. The president renewed his pledge — memorialized in an executive order he signed just days after taking office in 2009 — to close the prison.

“Given my administration’s relentless pursuit of al Qaeda’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never been opened,” the president said.

He said he will name a senior envoy to expedite transfers of detainees to other sites and countries and will lift his own moratorium on sending detainees back to Yemen.

Some of the 166 inmates at Guantanamo are deemed too dangerous to release, but 86 have been approved for transfer. Of those, 56 are from Yemen.

Legal hurdles

Under the defense policy law, Mr. Obama cannot transfer any of the detainees to the U.S. and can transfer them to other countries only if his administration certifies that they are not likely to return to the battlefield.

Republicans who have helped block all efforts to shutter Guantanamo said they don’t see how Mr. Obama can certify Yemen as stable enough to take the detainees.

“Well, guess what, between December 2009 and today, has Yemen shown any indication that they’re more capable of looking after those individuals? Absolutely not,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “If we were to transfer those individuals to Yemen, we’d be just like turning them loose.”

The opposition in Congress creates a political problem for Mr. Obama as well as a security issue, Ms. Prasow said.

“The biggest hurdle Obama faces is whether he has the political will to follow through with his promises,” she said. “If he’s truly going to move forward, he should continue to make clear to Congress and the public that closing Guantanamo is in the U.S. national security interest. I think if Obama takes concrete steps — such as transferring detainees to their home countries and starting up the administrative review process he designed — members of Congress will support his efforts. But first they, and the general public, need to see that he is serious.”

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