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HRW: Easing restrictions in Guantanamo 'a promising sign'

As the US Congress eases restrictions on Guantanamo detainee transfers, many hope to be sent home soon. But Human Rights Watch's Andrea Prasow says closing the prison might be still far away.

DW: The US Congress has agreed to ease restrictions for the first time since President Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo. How did that happen?

Andrea Prasow: Congress has spent the last few years trying to make it harder to close Guantanamo. But for the first time they have actually cut back on the restrictions they had imposed on the administration.

The administration has always had the ability to close Guantanamo. But these restrictions served as a serious hurdle. And it's a promising sign that they are being eased.

What is going to change now and what does this mean for the detainees? Can many of them hope to return home soon?

I hope it means that. There are 158 detainees in Guantanamo right now. Seventy-nine of them were identified almost four years ago as eligible for transfer - people who were supposed to be allowed to go home. A handful of them can't return to their home countries, so they need to be resettled in third countries.

But these restrictions have been used by the Obama administration as a way to delay transferring these men. I hope the change in the congressional language will allow many more to go home.

But there is still a significant hurdle, which is that a good portion of those men who have been cleared for transfer come from Yemen. And even if the law doesn't prohibit transferring people to Yemen, the administration has shown a great deal of reluctance to send the Yemenis home.

What exactly has been changed by this vote?

The most important thing is what hasn't been changed. Congress has still banned transferring detainees to the US. Which means no detainee in Guantanamo now can be prosecuted in US federal courts, which is the only place they should be prosecuted, if at all. So that is still the same - none of them can enter the US.

But Congress previously had a series of requirements that the secretary of defense had to sign before transferring someone to another country. And it was politically difficult for the secretary to issue this so-called certification.

What Congress did this year was they got rid of the certification requirement. Instead, before the detainee is transferred there is a series of factors that the administration must consider. The language in these factors that has to be considered is the same language that was in the law all along. There are security considerations: Is the person going to be in detention in his home country? Does that country still have the ability to detain him? Are there known risks in transferring him to a particular environment?

The security assessment will still take place. But it's just structured in a different way to provide the administration with some political cover when it come to sending detainees home.

Obama (Photo: picture alliance/dpa)

Obama pledged to close Guantanamo

Does this decision signal a change in political attitudes when it comes to Guantanamo? Has this been fueled by the end of the war in Afghanistan?

I think the reason Congress was prepared to ease these restrictions is that for the first time in years the President made it clear that he was truly serious about closing Guantanamo. We saw him talk about Guantanamo in his national security speech in May. You could see that he was personally affected by the hunger strike that so many men in Guantanamo were participating in, and by the notion that he was responsible for their continued indefinite detention. And I think he realized that it was time to really follow through with his pledge to close Guantanamo.

Pressure from the administration, along with this commitment, has helped persuade members of Congress to support the president's plan to close Guantanamo. In the past there was no need for members of Congress to take any political risks because the president wasn't going to either.

Has this helped Obama getting closer to his goal - to close Guantanamo altogether?

It is still far away, but I think it's important to note that the administration has transferred a number of detainees out of Guantanamo in the last few weeks, even without the law being changed.

Congress has now passed this law. The president will sign it soon, but the new restrictions have not yet taken effect.

Under the old law, which the president said was so restrictive, he managed to transfer several detainees to their home countries. Two went back to Algeria, although they did so against their will. Two others went back to Algeria in the summer. Two detainees went back to Sudan and two went to Saudi Arabia.

All of those detainees could have been transferred at any time in the last year or two under the existing law. The difference now is that the president is actually willing to make it happen.

Andrea Prasow is a senior national security counsel and advocate in Human Rights Watch's US Program.

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