WASHINGTON—One high-profile prisoner may be out of Guantanamo prison soon. Australian David Hicks agreed late Monday to plead guilty to lending material support to terrorism, and he's expected to be sent back to his native land to serve the remainder of his yet-to-be-determined sentence.
But as Hicks prepares to leave, a new inmate—accused of helping to plan a deadly 2002 hotel bombing in Kenya—arrived at the prison on the U.S. Naval Base on Cuba's southeastern coast, underscoring that the controversial prison for terrorism suspects won't close anytime soon.
Despite mounting pressure to close it from Congress, foreign allies and even senior members of President Bush's Cabinet, the much-criticized detention center appears destined to remain open through the rest of Bush's 22 months in office and beyond.
"I think the strategy of this administration is to just hand it over to the next administration," said Joanne Mariner, the director of terrorism and counterterrorism programs at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
While its population is slowly shrinking—more detainees have left Guantanamo than the roughly 385 who remain—the facility remains stuck in a legal morass that critics charge is of the White House's own making.
About 80 detainees have been cleared to leave, but the U.S. government has yet to persuade their native countries to take them back under the conditions it wants. Transferring the prison's population to American soil, as human rights groups advocate, could open the Bush administration's already-battered detainee policy to new legal challenges.
"The president made clear back in September that he would love to be able to shut it down, but unfortunately the circumstances do not presently permit," White House spokesman Tony Snow said last week.
Asked whether he thought that Guantanamo will close before Bush leaves office, Snow replied: "I don't think it will."
He was responding to a report in The New York Times—which U.S. officials haven't denied—that Defense Secretary Robert Gates joined forces with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shortly after he took office in December to argue for closing the prison.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales reportedly prevailed in urging that Guantanamo remain open.
The plea offer by Hicks late Monday was a turning point of sorts for the facility, which observed its fifth anniversary in January.
The former kangaroo skinner was the first of 774 men known to have passed through the prison to appear before a military tribunal, which Congress authorized last year after the Supreme Court rejected an earlier White House plan to try terrorism suspects. Hicks was accused of attending al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan, but wasn't charged with engaging in combat against U.S. forces.
Several dozen detainees could face military commissions, although charges have been prepared against only two.
"It could take another several years to get through this," Mariner predicted.
If administration officials had hoped that the military commission involving Hicks would improve the image of Guantanamo—which has become a global symbol of abuses carried out in the name of fighting terrorism—they were disappointed.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a leading critic of Bush's detainee policy, criticized the way that the tribunals are conducted. They would be just as unfair to the defendant if they were someplace else, he said.
"You could move prisoners away from Guantanamo and have these same issues arise as to whether or not they have a right to know what is the evidence that they're an enemy combatant so they can try to provide contrary evidence," he said.
Human rights groups also criticized the proceedings, in which a Marine colonel who presided over the hearing dismissed two of Hicks' longtime civilian lawyers.
"It does not feel like much of a victory for the commissions or the administration's counterterrorism policy," said Elisa Massimino, the Washington director of Human Rights First, which monitors conditions at Guantanamo.
Calling conditions there "calculated cruelty," Massimino added, "I don't know how much more evidence one needs that this policy is a liability."
A congressional staffer, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said the administration didn't understand that the only way to change Guantanamo's image was to close it.
"You can't put zebra stripes on a hippo," he said.
Human rights group were alarmed by the announcement Monday that Abdul Malik, who's accused of involvement in a bombing in Mombasa, Kenya, that killed 13 people, none of them Americans, had been sent to Guantanamo.
Malik, whom Kenyan authorities apparently picked up in February, is the first terrorism suspect transferred to Guantanamo since September 2004, excluding 14 "high-value detainees" whom Bush moved there last year from secret CIA prisons.
But the congressional aide said he didn't think Malik's transfer indicated that a new flow of prisoners to Guantanamo was coming.
Noting that the prison's newest inmate—unlike many of its current and previous ones—reportedly had admitted involvement in a deadly terrorist attack, the aide said: "If that's the new bar, that's a pretty high bar."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Renee Schoof contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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