- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2013

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.”

As of now, the public is not supportive.

A Fox News poll last week found that 63 percent of Americans wanted the prison to be kept open and 28 percent said it should be closed.

John Hutson, retired Navy rear admiral, lawyer and judge advocate of the Navy, said the American public is “woefully misinformed” about the prisoners, the options for moving them and the damage Guantanamo has done to the nation’s image on the global stage.

“If people had a better understanding of those factors, they would be clamoring for it to be closed rather than trying to keep it open,” Adm. Hutson said. “And, of course, [the president’s] critics in Congress will stop at nothing to thwart whatever he is trying to do. I just hope he doesn’t come out in favor of Father’s Day.”

It may not help Mr. Obama’s cause domestically, but the top U.N. human rights official criticizes the U.S. government for keeping Guantanamo open, saying the prison and the U.S. armed drone program that Mr. Obama also wrestled with last week are counterproductive in the battle against terrorist groups.

“The injustice embodied in this detention center has become an ideal recruitment tool for terrorists,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Monday at the opening of a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Hardening opposition

Despite Mr. Obama’s renewed plea, opposition in Congress appears to be stiffening.

Last summer, the U.S. transferred prisoner Ibrahim al-Qosi home to Sudan after he served out the sentence he received as part of a plea deal. At the time, U.S. law allowed transfers of those who had finished sentences under plea bargain, even if the home country was on the “state sponsors of terrorism” list.

But late last year, under a defense policy law, Congress deleted the plea bargain exception.

Tara Andringa, a spokeswoman for Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said the law affected only one prisoner — Noor Uthman Mohammad.

“In exchange for dropping the exception, we insisted on new language that would provide favorable consideration — but not an automatic exception — for any future plea agreement,” she said.

Before Mr. Obama’s announcement last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said Noor could continue to be held under the laws of war after he serves out his military sentence.

“We do it all the time,” Mr. Graham said.

Court documents show that Noor traveled to Afghanistan in 1994 and received basic arms training at a camp before becoming a trainer himself and taking on various other responsibilities. He said he was never a member of the Taliban or al Qaeda.

He said the camp closed in 2000 and he tried to return to his native Sudan, but was picked up by authorities at a safe house in Pakistan.

Noor eventually was handed over to American forces, transferred to Guantanamo in August 2002 and entered a guilty plea nearly a decade later.