When US President Barack Obama entered office in January and promptly pledged to shut down the US prison at Guantanamo and suspended all further military tribunals of the kind used by his predecessor George W. Bush, human rights groups across the country and the world were relieved. Finally, they thought, America would cease locking away terror suspects without recourse to the justice system.
Not surprisingly, though, closing down Guantanamo has proven much easier said than done. Even those prisoners deemed not to be dangerous are creating headaches for Washington as the search continues for countries willing to take them. Domestically, opposition is large to an Obama administration plan to release a group of Chinese Uighur prisoners into the US.
Many of the 241 prisoners, however, cannot simply be released -- and recent reports in the US media indicate that Obama may be grabbing for a Bush-era tool that he appeared to have jettisoned: military commissions. According to the New York Times this weekend, the Obama administration has begun leaning towards trying some of the remaining inmates in such controversial tribunals.
Obama has never categorically rejected the military commissions as a means of dealing with Guantanamo prisoners, some of whom are accused of having been involved in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US. During the campaign, though, he did say that "by any measure, our system of trying detainees has been an enormous failure."
Any return to using such military commissions would be a major disappointment to human rights groups who were hoping that Obama's election signalled a new era in America's handling of terror suspects. As German editorials show on Monday, frustration across the Atlantic is equally high.
In an editorial entitled "Obama's Great Mistake," the center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Obama's people certainly imagined things differently. But reality has caught up with them. What should they do with people who are in fact horrifying criminals but whose confessions came as a result of brutal interrogations? No regular court would accept the testimony. Should suspected masterminds of the 9/11 attacks and other terrible attacks be set free? That can't be the solution either. Obama is thus considering holding on to the military commissions with a couple of extra rights for the suspects. Bush light, so to speak."
"Obama is thus discrediting both himself and the US. It would be better were he to gather the necessary political courage to initiate criminal proceedings before regular courts. Legally, it will be incredibly complicated and possibly untenable in some cases. But the country cannot get around the purification process. Otherwise, the poison from the Bush era could continue to infect America's image for years to come."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The US government has asked Germany to accept former Guantanamo prisoners. Exactly the same government is apparently planning to continue the military commissions to try those prisoners. One could hardly be more contradictory."
"It is the same tactic that President Barack Obama has already used when it came to the torturers from the CIA -- punish with one hand, stroke with the other. Whenever he takes a step forward, he stumbles backwards as well. That will likely be enough to disappoint all those Europeans who had expectations that Obama would be an almost messiah-like healer. It was expected that he would demolish all of the ugly monuments from the Bush era and then, together with Al Gore, plant a Garden of Eden over the top, through which he would drive fuel-efficient compacts from Chrysler."
"And now: the US president is pursuing a policy of trying to make everyone happy. He is trying to accommodate the left side of the political spectrum as well as those on the right. All of a sudden, Barack Obama is beginning to look eerily similar to Chancellor Angela Merkel. He is no longer floating above the political lowlands, the swamps of compromise. He is walking directly through them and getting dirty in the process."
The Financial Times Deutschland comes to Obama's defense on Monday:
"Barack Obama promised Americans and the rest of the world he would follow a governmental strategy akin to pushing the reset button. The small red button US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently presented in Moscow works as a symbol for Obama's domestic reform agenda just as well as it does for his vision of US foreign and security policy: Bush is gone, in the future everything will be completely different."
"But even the Obama government thinks it is too dangerous to bring all (Guantanamo) cases before civilian courts and to get rid of the military commissions set up by the Bush administration. Bush called them into existence after Sept. 11, 2001 in order to imprison so-called 'enemy combatants' outside of the US legal system in Guantanamo, interrogate them and sentence them before special courts."
"Such a policy cannot be made to disappear with a reset button. Were those cases currently being looked into by military commissions to be transferred to civilian courts, a number of procedural riddles would have to be solved -- because some of the most important suspects in Guantanamo were tortured, their testimony and confessions would likely be thrown out. Any civilian trials would also be overshadowed by secrecy concerns."
"The risk that such a civilian trial would be used by mass murderers as a soap box, or even that they would be released for purely formal or procedural reasons, would be large. It is for these reasons that Obama wants to hold on to -- reformed -- military commissions. That will likely disappoint all those who expected him to embark on a radical change of course. But it speaks for his understanding of reality."