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Notre Dame Groups Hope Obama Will Close Gitmo

This story was written by Kaitlynn Riely, The Observer

A month before the presidential election, Notre Dame senior Catherine McKinney stood on South Quad beside a makeshift prison in an orange jumpsuit, protesting the existence of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and asking people to sign petitions urging its closure.

Now, with President-elect Barack Obama planning his transition to the White House, McKinney is hoping the Obama administration's Guantanamo policy will be "significantly different" from President George Bush's.

McKinney, the president of Human Rights-ND, said she is in the process of analyzing Obama's plans to see what will actually happen when he takes office.

"It's going to be a priority of ours to make human rights a priority of the new Obama administration," she said.

McKinney acknowledged that the new president will be confronted with many other problems, but said she thinks closing Guantanamo Bay should be a top priority. Last week, advisors to Obama told the Associated Press that closing the prison is, in fact, a top priority of the incoming president.

The detention of approximately 250 people at Guantanamo Bay has negatively affected the "national image" of the United States, McKinney said, an image Obama can begin to repair if he shuts down the detention center.

"We need to make sure that we've got a very secure image in a global perception so that we are not discredited, because if we start criticizing a country for its human rights practices and abuses, then it's thrown back at us," she said.

Mary Ellen O'Connell, a Notre Dame professor of international law and a specialist on the law of war, said keeping Guantanamo Bay open would weaken President-elect Obama's position on the world stage, especially at a time when the United States is negotiating with other countries about how to solve the global financial crisis.

'If he immediately takes away big, glaring examples of violations of international law, namely Guantanamo, then all of a sudden, the powers of the world, with whom we are negotiating, say 'this is a man we can trust,'" she said. "That's why I think he can't wait on Guantanamo Bay."

Obama stated during his campaign that he wants to close the detention center, and although his advisors are now increasing discussion about shutting down the facility, the details of the fates of the approximately 250 detainees at Guantanamo Bay are still unclear, the Associated Press report said last week.

The new Obama administration must respect international law when planning for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, O'Connell said, specifically citing the Geneva Convention, which cover most of the detainees.

The two prisoners who were detained as teenagers should be repatriated to their home countries immediately, she said, and the United States should also begin negotiations to return persons not accused of any crimes to their home countries.

For those prisoners for whom evidence suggests they had been involved in planning terrorist attacks, O'Connell said they may lawfully be tried before regular federal courts with criminal jurisdiction in the United States. Many other prisoners should be returned to Afghanistan to be detained until the end of hostilities there or face trial, if there is evidence they have committed crimes, she said.

O'Connell stressed that the United States should now and should always have followed the law in place at the time and not create new courts for persons already in detention. The idea of new security courts is one that has been floated by Obama advisors in Associated Press reports.

The creation of new courts is something Obama needs to stay away from, O'Connell said, because it would violate the Geneva Convenions.

"You can't go around creating new courts for the purposes of the people you don't like," she said.

While the exact details of a Guantanamo Bay shutdown remain unclear, O'Connell said she is "confident" that Obama will close the detention center as president.

McKinney agreed that her idealthat Guantanamo Bay closes in Obama's first termis realistic.

"I would like to think that in four years you can process, in our judicial system, 270 prisoners and figure out a just system for them," she said.

Human Rights-ND is considering sending people to Washington, D.C. in January to join Witness Against Torture, a campaign to shut down Guantanamo, in kicking off its planned 100-day presence in front of the White House.

"If we don't send people to D.C.," McKinney said, "then we are going to be doing a lot of campaigns here to make sure human rights, specifically Guantanamo Bay, but all human rights, are made a priority and words turned into action."

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