WASHINGTON (CN) – In an apparent reversal of policy, the goverment will continue to hold almost 50 Guantanamo Bay prisoners without trial. A Justice Department spokesman could not comment on reports of the change but indirectly confirmed them by saying the prisoners could always try the writ of Habeas Corpus, a powerful writ that challenges a prisoner’s loss of liberty.
The policy change was justified by administration officials who said that prosecuting the prisoners would be too difficult but releasing them would be too dangerous, according to a New York Times article on Thursday.
But the new statement appears to contradict testimony before Congress two months ago by Attorney General Eric Holder, who said the American justice system is quite capable of trying the Guantanamo prisoners and announced that five Guantanamo Bay detainees, including Khalid Shaikh Muhammed – the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – will be prosecuted in federal court.
“For over 200 years, our nation has relied on a faithful adherence to the rule of law to bring criminals to justice,” Holder said in November, while defending his decision to hold the trials.
The administration also found that of the nearly 200 remaining Guantanamo prisoners, almost 40 can be prosecuted, and that the remaining 110 about should be released, the New York Times reported.
What to do with the prisoners has been a contentious issue. Obama has pledged to close down the military prison in Cuba, which he has accused of recruiting more terrorists than it houses.
But the question of whether to simply release the prisoners, or to try them before a federal court or a military tribunal has slowed the effort. Even prisoners cleared for release have had difficulty finding an accepting host nation.
Lawmakers have also said they would not allow for the prisoners to be released in the United States, even if they were found innocent.
Congress had held up the closure of Guantanamo, citing concerns about the implications of trying enemy combatants in civilian courts or of moving them to the continental United States.
Many worry that civilian courts are not equipped to handle the classified information that could arise during a foreign fighter trial or address the difficulty in collecting evidence from the battlefield.
Most of the prisoners have no formal charges against them.