WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration stopped calling Guantanamo inmates “enemy combatants” on Friday and incorporated international law as its basis for holding the prisoners while it works to close the facility.
The U.S. Justice Department filed court papers outlining a further legal and linguistic shift from the anti-terrorism policies of Republican President George W. Bush, which drew worldwide condemnation as violations of human rights and international law.
“As we work toward developing a new policy to govern detainees, it is essential that we operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values, and is governed by law,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
Some human rights advocates said the shift by the new Democratic president did not go far enough in dealing with hundreds of suspected Islamist militants held, most for years without trial, at a U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“The government may have eliminated the term enemy combatant but it is still claiming the authority to detain people far beyond the traditional norms of humanitarian law,” said attorney Devon Chaffee of the group Human Rights First.
The term “enemy combatant” was adopted by Bush after the September 11 attacks in 2001 to refer to prisoners held under military orders he issued to launch the war on terrorism. The wording became emblematic of his policies, along with razor wire and orange jumpsuits.
The policies were subject to numerous legal battles and Supreme Court rulings that rebuked Bush’s administration.
The filing on Friday, in the cases of some 200 Guantanamo inmates seeking a court review of their detention, explains the standards of President Barack Obama’s administration for holding terrorism suspects without court review.
It said those at Guantanamo will no longer be held on the exclusive basis of the president’s authority as commander in chief.
Bush, who sought to expand presidential powers during his eight years in office, had asserted his war powers were enough legal reason for holding prisoners. Bush officials also said they were not legally subject to the Geneva Conventions on prisoner treatment — a view the Supreme Court rejected.
The legal structure for holding the Guantanamo prisoners will now be based on laws passed by Congress and, by extension, international law including the Geneva conventions, the Justice Department said.
In addition, it said only those who provided “substantial” support to al Qaeda, the Taliban or similar groups — or who were “part” of those groups — would be considered candidates for detention.
It cited Obama’s project to review the entire detention policy, as part of a plan to close the Guantanamo prison, and said further refinements of the standards were possible.
The Obama administration has said some of the Guantanamo detainees, now numbering about 240, will be freed while others will be put on trial. A third category involves some prisoners deemed too dangerous to be released.
Major human rights groups said the policies will still allow the United States to detain prisoners seized far from a battlefield and that key definitions were left out, such as what constitutes “substantial” support for a militant group.
“In key elements they are a continuation of the Bush administration,” said attorney Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This is really a case of old wine in new bottles,” said the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which represents a number of Guantanamo prisoners.
Holder had signaled at a Justice Department ceremony that much of his work would consist of scrapping Bush administration legal policy.
“There is an awful lot of work that we have to do,” Holder said. “There are things, quite frankly, that we have to reverse, policy changes that we have to make.”
Additional reporting by Jim Vicini; Editing by John O'Callaghan