By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, Jan 22 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison for foreign terrorism suspects within a year, acting quickly on Thursday to seek to restore America’s damaged moral standing in the world.
Obama administration officials, including his choice for attorney general, Eric Holder, have pointed to the many obstacles ahead in closing the prison. The most obvious problem is where to put the detainees, some of whom are deemed too dangerous to free.
Here are questions and answers on options open to Obama and some information about the high-security prison at a U.S. naval base in southeastern Cuba, which is widely seen as a stain on America’s human rights record.
Q: How many detainees are still at Guantanamo and why was it opened?
A: About 245 detainees remain at Guantanamo, which was set up in January 2002 to hold foreign terrorism suspects captured after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States that prompted former President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism. Most have been held for years without being charged and many have complained of abuse. At least 525 have been released and five died in custody — four of suicide by hanging and one of cancer.
Q: If Guantanamo Bay prison is closed, where will the detainees go?
A: The Bush administration negotiated for many months with countries whose nationals are still at Guantanamo, trying to get them to take in detainees.
Some governments have denied the Guantanamo prisoners are in fact their citizens, while others have been reluctant to agree to U.S. requests to imprison or monitor returnees.
Some of those being held include Chinese Muslim Uighurs who Washington says would face persecution if they returned home, together with Libyans, Uzbeks and Algerians who are also at risk.
Some could be granted asylum by other nations if their own countries refuse to take them.
Last month, Portugal’s foreign minister urged other European countries to take in Guantanamo prisoners, saying such a move could make it easier for Obama to close the prison. Switzerland has said it is open to taking in detainees.
Q: What other problems does Obama face in closing the prison?
A: There are a host of legal and practical problems, particularly concerning those who are deemed "too dangerous" to free. More than a third of the prisoners left are from Yemen and the State Department has still not been able to reach a deal with that country on either security assurances or guarantees that prisoners would be treated humanely.
The Bush administration wanted to try about 80 Guantanamo prisoners on terrorism charges and held a few dozen others it did not intend to try but believed should be kept locked up. Those facing charges include five accused Sept. 11 plotters.
Q: What about transferring detainees to the U.S. mainland where they could face trials for their alleged crimes?
A: This option has been discussed often but is unpopular with local communities where they might be settled, including military base prisons in Kansas and California. There is a "not in my backyard" response to such a move. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican, has been particularly vocal in opposing Guantanamo detainees being moved to Fort Leavenworth’s military prison in his state. Brownback has invited Obama to visit the high-security facility to make his case of how unsuitable he deems it for Guantanamo prisoners.
Q: If the detainees are transferred to the U.S. mainland would they have the same rights as other Americans?
A: This was a strong argument made by the Bush administration in opposing a move to the U.S. mainland from Guantanamo. By transferring them to the U.S. mainland, more legal options could be open to detainees to challenge their imprisonment. (Editing by Eric Beech and Frances Kerry)