Human Rights Activists Assail President Obama’s Decision on Military Commissions

May 15, 2009 7:26am

Human rights activists expressed disappointment with President Obama’s decision to restore revamped military commission trials for detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

"Everyone knows the military commissions have been a dismal failure," Gabor Rona, the international legal director of Human Rights First, tells the Los Angeles Times in what will no doubt be a harbinger of human rights groups reaction today. "The results of the cases will be suspect around the world. It is a tragic mistake to continue them."

"It’s disappointing that Obama is seeking to revive rather than end this failed experiment," ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz told the London Guardian. "There’s no detainee at Guantanamo who cannot be tried and shouldn’t be tried in the regular federal courts system."

Human rights groups point out that in August 2008, then-Sen. Obama seemed to indicate he was leaning towards trying detainees in U.S. courts and through the court martial system. Responding to the Hamdan verdict, Mr. Obama’s campaign issued a statement saying:

"I commend the military officers who presided over this trial and served on the hearing panel under difficult and unprecedented circumstances. They and all our Armed Forces continue to serve this country with valor in the fight against terrorism. That the Hamdan trial — the first military commission trial with a guilty verdict since 9/11 — took several years of legal challenges to secure a conviction for material support for terrorism underscores the dangerous flaws in the Administration’s legal framework. It’s time to better protect the American people and our values by bringing swift and sure justice to terrorists through our courts and our Uniform Code of Military Justice. And while it is important to convict anyone who provides material support for terrorism, it is long past time to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and the terrorists who murdered nearly 3000 Americans." (Emphasis added).

A White House official says that the president has "always envisioned a role for commissions, properly constituted," and that the August statement was not meant to preclude them.

The official points to President Obama’s 2006 vote in favor of the commissions as proposed by GOP Sens. John Warner or Virginia, John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, his statements during that debate, as well as work since November with Sen. Graham on re-creating the commissions in a way more likely to pass Supreme Court constitutional muster.

The reference then-Sen. Obama made to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (courts martial) last August, the official recalls, "was around the time of the debate with Sen. McCain that terrorism is not just a law enforcement matter but also a matter that is a question of the laws and rules of war."

– jpt

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