Senate defense bill would let Gitmo detainees plead guilty in civilian court

Senate defense bill would let Gitmo detainees plead guilty in civilian court
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Human rights groups are praising provisions in the Senate version of an annual defense policy bill that would allow detainees at Guantanamo Bay to plead guilty in civilian courts and get emergency medical care in the United States.

Still, they are disappointed at other provisions in the bill that restrict the detention facility’s closure.

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The version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act approved Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee would keep in place the prohibition on transferring detainees to the United States.

That would severely hamstring President Obama’s plan to close the detention facility before he leaves office; as his vision relies on housing some detainees in stateside prisons.

But the bill would allow temporary transfers for emergency medical treatment.

“Allowing detainees to be transferred to the United States for medical treatment is a good first step, but in the interest of justice and national security Congress ought to remove the ban on transfers to the United States entirely,” Raha Wala, director of national security advocacy at Human Rights First, wrote in a statement.

The bill would also allow detainees to plead guilty to criminal charges in civilian courts in the United States via teleconference. Those who plead guilty would be allowed to serve out their sentences in foreign countries.

Right now, civilian court is inaccessible to detainees because of the ban on transfers to the United States. Instead, detainees who are being prosecuted are subject to military commissions, which critics have decried as dysfunctional.

Of the 80 detainees still at Guantanamo, 10 have been charged or convicted in the military commission system.

Civilian court offers detainees the advantage of pleading guilty to several offenses, such as conspiracy and providing material support to terrorism, that aren’t available in military commissions because they are not war crimes.

Also unlike military commissions, civilian courts can count previous time in custody toward any sentence.

“It’s important to allow a civilian court option for Guantanamo detainees, because from a legal and policy perspective the indefinite detention and military commissions options at Guantanamo are a total disaster,” Wala said.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is also in strong support of the provision.

“If a detainee wants to plead guilty and cooperate with the government, there’s no conceivable reason why that shouldn’t happen,” said Wells Dixon, a lawyer the center who represents Guantanamo detainees.

The provision could help close the facility, he added, as detainees who are part of the so-called “irreducible minimum” could plead guilty in civilian court.

Neither provision is in the House version of the bill. So even if they pass the full Senate, they could change when the two chambers reconcile their versions of the bill.

The language on transfers for medical care has been in the Senate version in the past, only to be stripped out when the two chambers craft a conference version of the bill.

“We hold out hope this time will be different, but it’s anybody’s guess,” Dixon said. “Certainly, the detainee population is aging, and because there’s so little health care at Guantanamo, currently minor health care problems become chronic problems, and Guantanamo just doesn’t have the ability to deal with those problems.”