Seven months after he was appointed to the job, high-powered
Washington attorney Clifford Sloan said in a rare interview that the
administration is in its best position in years to negotiate the
repatriation of detainees, including to chaotic destinations like
Yemen, or arrange their resettlement in countries other than the
Major obstacles remain, but Sloan said lawmakers had loosened
restrictions enough to open the way for "significant progress"
toward emptying the jail and achieving Obama's new goal of closing
it by the end of the year. Most prisoners held at the U.S. naval
base in Cuba have languished for a decade or more without being
charged or given a trial.
"We are talking to a wide range of countries and we are moving
forward as aggressively as we can. I expect that you'll be seeing
action on that front," Sloan told Reuters this week.
Obama promised at the start of his presidency in 2009 to shut the
Guantanamo detention center, but failed to do so, largely due to
opposition from the U.S. Congress.
In his annual State of the Union address last week, Obama told
Americans "this needs to be the year" that Guantanamo is finally
shut down and urged Congress to help him do it. But he offered no
new prescription for removing the camp's remaining 155 prisoners.
Human rights groups welcomed the rhetoric, but some remain skeptical
after years of delays.
"It's just a first step. Now we need to see action," said Raha Wala,
senior attorney for Human Rights First. "We need to see a
significant uptick in the pace of transfers if Guantanamo is going
to be closed this year."
The challenge for Sloan — together with his fellow special envoy at
the Pentagon, Paul Lewis — is to show that Obama finally means
Among the remaining hurdles are a congressional ban on transferring
detainees to U.S.-based prisons, and finding homes even for dozens
of detainees cleared for release.
Sloan is seeking to rejuvenate diplomatic efforts that had been
stalled by congressional resistance to shutting Guantanamo.
He said he is giving priority to finding solutions for the 77
prisoners — nearly half of the prison population — who have been
cleared for transfer or release since 2009. There has been a modest
uptick in the pace of transfers, with 11 prisoners sent home or
elsewhere since August, nine in December alone.
Increasing the flow of prisoners out of Guantanamo will be no easy
task for Sloan, who has deployed his negotiating skills on behalf of
both Democratic and Republican presidents, argued cases before the
Supreme Court and even once represented Jon Bon Jovi's rock band.
The biggest complication is still Yemen, home to 56 of those
eligible to be repatriated, but where some U.S. officials fear they
might join up with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), widely
seen as the group's deadliest regional affiliate.
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Obama last May lifted a moratorium on sending detainees to Yemen.
But the Yemeni government has yet to develop a long-promised
rehabilitation program or build a detention center for returnees to
make it easier to move ahead.
"Moving forward on those from Yemen as well as those from other
countries is obviously very important to us in moving forward in
closing Guantanamo," Sloan said.
In dealing with Yemen and other countries where detainees might go,
"it's very important for us to have in place appropriate security
measures and to ensure these transfers are consistent with humane
treatment policy," he said.
U.S. officials won't publicly discuss which countries they are
negotiating with to take detainees, but talks are apparently
proceeding on a number of fronts.
Four Algerians were among those transferred home last year and
discussions could focus on the Algerians that remain. Some Afghan
detainees cleared for repatriation face an uncertain future because
of tensions between Washington and Kabul as the U.S. military winds
down its role in the Afghanistan war.
Sloan said efforts were also under way to identify third countries
for detainees with nowhere else to go, reviving a process that
stalled in Obama's first term when allies bristled over
congressional refusal to allow detainees onto U.S. soil. Slovakia
took the last three ethnic Uighur Chinese inmates last month.
Even with stepped-up transfers, Guantanamo's closure is in doubt
unless the administration can figure out what to do with the nearly
50 inmates — the so-called "forever" prisoners — it has deemed too
dangerous to release. Obama has promised an accelerated process of
parole-style "periodic reviews" to determine whether they still pose
In December, Congress eased some restrictions on prisoner transfers.
Sloan said "the next big step would be removing the ban on bringing
people to the United States for detention and trial."
Lawmakers, however, have made clear they would strongly resist such
Opened by President George W. Bush in 2002 to hold terrorism
suspects rounded up overseas after the September 11, 2001, attacks,
Guantanamo became a symbol of the excesses of his "war on terror."
Sloan was appointed in July after Guantanamo was thrust back into
the spotlight by a hunger strike and the military's decision to
force-feed prisoners to keep them alive.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Diane Craft)
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