The US says that leading terrorism suspects will be brought before military and not civilian courts. The decision spells the end of one of President Barack Obama's main human-rights promises. So why the turnaround?
Protests continue against the continuing existence of the Guantanamo camp
Attorney General Eric Holder announced the switch in policy on telling reporters that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and four purported co-conspirators would face a military tribunal at the Guantanamo detention center rather than a civilian court in New York.
"We simply cannot allow a trial to be delayed any longer for the victims of the 9/11 attacks or for their family members who have waited for nearly a decade for justice," Holder said.
Leading US Republicans, including former presidential candidate John McCain, immediately praised the change of course.
But the decision highlighted the perceived conflict between desires to see terrorists brought to justice and the ideal of restoring proceedings connected with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 to the regular US justice system.
Holder said the Obama administration had little choice but to change his policy after the US Congress passed restrictions last December on moving prisoners from Guantanamo, a Cuban exclave, to the American mainland. That effectively meant they could not be tried in civilian courts.
"Too many people, many of whom certainly know better, have expressed doubts about our time-honored and time-tested system of justice," Holder told reporters.
But civil-rights groups have swiftly protested the policy shift, calling into question both the wisdom and the motivation of the decision.
US Attorney General Eric Holder suggested the Obama government had no choice
Critics in the US argue that the decision on the tribunals was politically motivated, coming, as it did, immediately after Obama announced he would seek reelection in 2012.
"It might be a way that the administration is trying to avoid that being a campaign issue by giving the conservatives what they want on this issue, even though they know that legally it is not the right thing to do," David Glazier, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles told the AFP news agency.
Civil rights lawyers say that judgements rendered by military tribunals may not be viewed as credible.
"Cases prosecuted by the Obama administration in the commissions now are sure to be subject to continuous legal challenges and delays, and their outcomes will not be seen as legitimate," Anthony Romero, American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director, told AFP. "That is not justice."
Bernhard Docke, a German lawyer who represented one prominent prisoner at the Guantanamo, concurred.
"Transferring the proceedings to civilian courts would have meant a return to the normal rules of a state governed by law and given the judgements more legitimacy," Docke told Deutsche Welle. "But obviously there was a fear amongst influential circles in the United States that such courts might not have yielded the desired results."
In 2006, Docke helped engineer the release of Murat Kurnaz, a life-long resident of Germany who was detained at Guantanamo for five years, although Pentagon authorities concluded early on that he was not involved in terrorist activities.
In 2009, President Obama promised to close the controversial military facility, but the decision to hold further military tribunals surely means the camp will continue to exist for the foreseeable future.
Guantanamo Bay, it appears, is here to stay
The Guantanamo facility has attracted significant outrage both in the US and abroad because of well-documented allegations that prisoners were being essentially tortured.
Indeed, part of the concern about giving figures like Sheikh Mohammed civilian trials could stem from the fact that evidence used against him may have been extracted by using techniques such as simulated drowning or "waterboarding."
But although Europeans have been very critical, European governments have been reticent about helping the Obama administration close Gunatanamo by taking in former inmates who are deemed no longer dangerous but who cannot be returned to their home countries.
Germany, for example, has accepted only two such detainees.
"America made a big mistake by itself refusing to grant asylum to detainees who have been found innocent by the American executive," Docke said. "That's made it easier for European nations to justify similar refusals. But I would have liked to see a country like Germany provide more assistance. The help being offered is really quite inadequate."
As of February 2011, 172 prisoners were still being detained at Guantanamo. In March, Obama issued an executive order requiring that the cases of prisoners not put on trial there be regularly reviewed, and that the prisoners themselves be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
Obama may in fact have put an end to the most egregious human-rights offenses alleged to have taken place at the detention center under the government of George W. Bush. But critics say he's fallen very short indeed of fulfilling his promise to end the camp's controversial existence.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge