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Obama, Republicans rejoin fight over closing Guantanamo

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama this week renewed his pledge to shut down the Guantanamo Bay military prison, despite strong objections from Republicans who fear inmates could join jihadist battles currently raging across the globe.

In the latest salvo in an ongoing fight between Obama and his Republican adversaries in Congress, the State Department said recidivism dropped sharply since Obama took office.

“Opponents of closing Guantanamo cite a 30-percent recidivism rate among former detainees. This assertion is deeply flawed,” said Cliff Sloan, who until this year was the State Department’s special envoy for Guantanamo closure.

“Of the detainees transferred during this administration, more than 90 percent have not been suspected, much less confirmed, of committing any hostile activities after their release,” he wrote in a New York Times opinion piece this month.

According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 19 percent of Guantanamo detainees transferred out of the prison before 2009 were “confirmed of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities.”

For prisoners transferred after 2009 — the year Obama entered the White House — the figure is 6.8 percent. One of Obama’s first acts as president was to sign an executive order that decreed the closing of the prison.

It’s “time to finish the job,” Obama said Tuesday in his State of the Union address.

“As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice, so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit,” Obama said.

But Republicans, arguing to keep the prison open, have warned of a rise in global jihadism and highlighted the recent attacks in Paris.

John McCain, who lost the presidential election against Obama in 2008, along with other Republican senators, is pushing for legislation that would halt most prisoner transfers for two years.

They say 30 percent of ex-prisoners return to the fight, and they want those who once posed a medium or high risk of recidivism to be kept behind bars.

They have also called for an end to all repatriations to Yemen, which has been rocked by political turmoil in recent weeks. Most of Guantanamo’s 122 remaining inmates come from Yemen.

“Now is not the time to be emptying Guantanamo,” said Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, who supports the temporary freeze on inmate transfers.

McCain said it was “a badge of honor to have been an inmate at Guantanamo Bay,” and criticized Obama for not having a clear plan of what would become of them.

“We’re going to continue to release batches of prisoners, according to this administration, with no plan and the extreme likelihood that approximately one out of every three of them will re-enter the fight,” McCain said.

On the Fox News network, anchor Bill Hemmer cast doubts on the administration’s claim that confirmed recidivism since 2009 was 6.8 percent.

“When a Gitmo detainee goes back to their country they are a returning war hero, don’t kid yourself,” he said, using the nickname for Guantanamo.

“Single digits! I’ve never seen that number that low!”

– What to do with the Yemenis? –

The proportion of detainees returning to jihad was 17 percent in the first years of Obama’s presidency, but continued to decline as each case was reviewed and as consideration was given to which country he would be returned to.

Beyond the numbers, the central issue is knowing the risks attached to each prisoner’s release.

“The decision to transfer a detainee is made only after detailed, specific conversations with the receiving country about the potential threat a detainee may pose after transfer and the measures the receiving country will take in order to sufficiently mitigate that threat,” said Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Myles Caggins.

But, said Caggins, “if we do not receive adequate security and humane treatment assurances, the transfer does not occur.”

Nearly all the men at Guantanamo have never been charged for lack of evidence. A total of 28 were freed in 2014, while 54 more have been approved for transfer, and could be released by the end of the year.

“We are actively working to identify appropriate transfer locations for every detainee approved for transfer, and we are confident that we can do this,” said State Department spokesman Ian Moss said.

Forty-seven of those still in the prison are Yemenis, but transfers to Yemen are de facto barred due to the explosive situation there.

Officials said 12 Yemenis were recently sent to countries willing to take them even though they are not their citizens.

“While our policy preference is to repatriate detainees where we can do so consistent with our national security and humane treatment policies, under certain circumstances the most viable transfer option is resettlement in a third country,” Moss said. -AFP

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