Half of Guantanamo prisoners could be transferred under defense bill

WASHINGTON — Half the 162 detainees currently held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be released to a third country under a bill expected to pass Congress this month, a Senate Armed Services Committee source said Tuesday.

The prisoners eligible for release to third countries would be those no longer considered a threat to the United States. However, there would be several other conditions before they are released, meaning it will be months before any are transferred.

The provision outlining the authorization of transfers is part of a massive defence authorization bill agreed by House and Senate negotiators on Monday.

The bill, which includes an extension of hazardous duty and combat pay and new protections for victims of sexual assault within the military, is expected to pass both the House and the Senate before Congress adjourns for the Christmas break, the source said. It would then go to US President Barack Obama for his signature.

Obama promised in 2009 to close the prison, which opened in 2002 to hold terrorist suspects, after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. That effort stalled in his first term, but he vowed earlier this year to renew the push. Since then Obama has named a special envoy to focus on closing the prison and taken efforts to speed detainee transfers.

All along transfers have been hampered by unwillingness on the part of recipient countries to take in detainees, and by concern among US authorities that freed prisoners will return to their terrorist networks. Nevertheless, the Pentagon has transferred a handful of prisoners this year, including two released last week to Algeria, leaving 162 at the prison.

Detainees not eligle for transfer would remain at the prison, Senator Carl Levin said Monday after negotiators in the House and Senate reached the compromise.

The compromise legislation authorizes transfers to third countries if the detainee is determined to no longer to be a threat to US security and if the transfer is part of a court order. The measure authorizes other transfers if the defence secretary determines that the risk of the detainee returning to terrorist activity has been mitigated and if the transfer is in the national security interests of the United States.

Factors to be considered include the security situation in the recipient country, the presence of foreign terrorist groups in the recipient country, whether the recipient country is a state sponsor of terrorism, and the steps taken or to be taken to substantially mitigate the risk of the detainee returning to terrorist activities.

Congress must be informed about transfers at least 30 days in advance under terms of the legislation.

The bill extends through 2014 current prohibitions on the construction or modifications of facilities at the prison and prohibits the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States for any purpose, including trial, detention or medical emergencies.

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