Obama draws fire for 'terror' detainee moves

Martha Rayner in AFP, February 21, 2009

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WASHINGTON (AFP) — Despite President Barack Obama's moves to ban torture and close Guantanamo Bay, human rights advocates are angry some policies toward "terror" detainees do not depart enough from those of the previous administration.

Three announcements on Friday had rights advocates and lawyers questioning whether the Obama administration was continuing the policies of George W. Bush, which provoked outrage around the world.

A Pentagon report on the Guantanamo detention camp, which was ordered by Obama, drew a hail of fire for claiming that conditions for inmates are in line with Geneva Conventions and other legal obligations.

The report's conclusion contrasted sharply with claims made by lawyers who regularly visit detainees at the remote prison at a US Naval base in Cuba.

Even before the report's release, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized it as a "whitewash" of alleged abuses of detainees under Bush.

"Candidate Obama himself acknowledged that Guantanamo was a violation of domestic and international law. That's why the reported review, sweeping the abusive Bush policies under the rug, is so troubling," said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero.

Amnesty International also questioned the report's accuracy. Director Tom Parker said in a statement that it "comes as no surprise" because the review was not done by an independent monitoring body.

In another policy declaration Friday that one detainee advocate described as "deeply disappointing," Obama backed Bush positions on prisoner rights at Bagram -- a Afghan detention facility.

The ruling followed a hearing for four Bagram inmates by a US District Court in Washington last month, seeking the same rights accorded to prisoners at Guantanamo, leading to a flood of appeals in Washington courts from Guantanamo inmates challenging their detentions.

US District Court judge John Bates gave the Obama administration a February 20 deadline to indicate whether it intended to "refine" the positions of the Bush administration on the Bagram detainee cases and "to provide input regarding the definition of 'enemy combatant.'"

In a two-sentence statement from the Justice Department, Obama's administration said "the government adheres to its previously articulated position" ensures the facility's estimated 600 prisoners would not be able to challenge their detention in US courts.

Attorneys representing the detainees reacted with dismay at the news.

"The decision by the Obama administration to adhere to a position that has contributed to making our country a pariah around the world for its flagrant disregard of people's human rights is deeply disappointing," Barbara Olshansky, lead counsel for three of the four detainees, told AFP.

"We are trying to remain hopeful that the message being conveyed is that the new administration is still working on its position regarding the applicability of the laws of war, the Geneva Conventions and international human rights treaties that apply to everyone in detention there."

Obama has not indicated what he plans to do about Bagram detainees or whether he would go forward with a planned 60-million-dollar expansion of the prison.

Obama's appointment, meanwhile, of former Bush Justice Department official Matthew Olsen to head a "Guantanamo Detainee Review Task Force" received a lukewarm reception.

The task force will help determine the fate of the camp's more than 240 remaining prisoners; whether they can be transferred or released, or prosecuted. The difficult third category holds those prisoners deemed too dangerous to be let go, but for whom the government may claim to be impossible to prosecute.

In 2006, Olsen became head of the Department's National Security Division, and has a long career as a federal prosecutor, including for the Bush administration.

Olsen's appointment "may bode well for a fair review" of detainee cases, Fordham law professor Martha Rayner told AFP Saturday.

Hopefully, Rayner said, Olsen "will not accept the myth that there are men at Guantanamo who are too dangerous to be released, but cannot be prosecuted because there is insufficient evidence."