WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered the closure of the Guantanamo military prison within a year and a halt to harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects, moving quickly to restore the U.S. image abroad.
The executive order to close the prison, a symbol of detainee abuse and detention without charge under the Republican administration of George W. Bush, fulfills a promise Obama made during his campaign.
“The message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism and we are going to do so vigilantly,” the new Democratic president said at a signing ceremony in the Oval office.
“We are going to do so effectively and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals,” Obama said.
The president signed three executive orders. The first sets a deadline for closing the prison and kicks off a review process to deal with relocating, releasing or prosecuting the remaining detainees. It halts the military commissions set up to try prisoners and requires that conditions at the facility until its closure be humane.
Deciding to close the prison is simply the first step in a long, complicated process to determine the fate of its 250 inmates, many of whom have been held for years without trial.
The United States wants to try about 80 of the prisoners on terrorism charges. It has cleared 50 other detainees for release but cannot return them to their home countries because of the risk they could be tortured or persecuted there.
A second order requires the CIA to close secret detention centers overseas that generated controversy in Europe, and prohibits creation of such sites in the future.
It also mandates that interrogations of prisoners follow the U.S. Army Field Manual guidelines, which ensures that detainees get humane treatment under the Geneva Convention -- something Bush had said was not necessary.
The order also creates a task force to study rendition policies for transferring prisoners to other countries.
A third order creates a task force of top Cabinet members to conduct a broad review of detainee policy going forward, with a report due to the president within 180 days.
The final order assures that Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a prisoner now held in South Carolina, will get the same review as prisoners at Guantanamo.
Obama’s moves, on his second full day in office, will draw a close to a chapter of the Bush era that alienated allies and drew criticism from friends and foes alike. Bush criticized other countries for refusing to take prisoners at Guantanamo, but the Obama administration believes new diplomacy efforts will help that process.
Americans are divided over closing Guantanamo, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp poll released on Wednesday. The survey, carried out before Obama’s inauguration, found that 51 percent said it should close, while 47 percent said it should stay open.
Last month, Portugal’s foreign minister urged other Europeans to take in Guantanamo prisoners, saying such a move could make it easier for Obama to close the prison. Switzerland has said it is open to taking in prisoners.
The prison was established at a U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the Bush administration’s launch of the “war on terror.”
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Ross Colvin