The Big Question: Will taking Guantanamo Bay inmates to Illinois resolve their legal status?

Why are we asking this now?

Under plans announced this week by the Obama administration, the federal government is to buy an empty prison in Thomson, north-western Illinois, from that state's government. It will house inmates transferred from the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba that the president had pledged to close within a year of taking office, ie by the end of next month. The Pentagon will upgrade the facility from maximum security to "super-max." It will also build a courthouse inside the facility where inmates would be tried, similar to the one at Guantanamo.

So is this really the end of the Guantanamo story?

Alas not. Obama officials already concede that the original January 2010 deadline will not be met. In the very best of circumstances, Thomson will not be ready for business until next summer at the earliest. But it is probably the beginning of the end for Gitmo, which began operation in early 2002 – deliberately sited at the naval base at Guantanamo that the US leases from the Cuban government, so that it would not be subject to the jurisdiction of the US judicial system. But the facility turned into an international pubic relations disaster for the US, as a symbol of the excesses of the "war on terror", and of how Washington was abusing human rights.

Why has it taken so long to get to this point?

The Bush administration discovered it was far easier to capture suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere than to deal with these suspects, once they were prisoners. By 2006 even President Bush was claiming he wanted to shut Guantanamo. But he soon found how tricky that was in practice. Foreign countries, even close US allies, were reluctant to take detainees, even ones deemed to be no danger, against whom no charges were planned. At the same time both Congress and American public opinion opposed to the transfer of prisoners to the US proper. The Obama administration has run into exactly the same problems – which is why the deadline is being missed.

What numbers are involved?

At its peak, Guantanamo held around 750 prisoners. By the time Obama took office, the number was down to 242, and at the last count, in November 2009, stood at 210. Since January, 20 detainees have been resettled in third countries, 10 have been repatriated to their country of origin, one has been transferred to the US for prosecution, and one has committed suicide.

Of those remaining, the US authorities plan to send abroad more than 100 for repatriation or resettlement. Most of the others, presumably, will be sent to Thomson. The administration speaks only of "a limited number," perhaps less than 100.

Meanwhile, 40-odd Guantanamo inmates have been earmarked for prosecution, most by military commissions that if things go to plan, will operate at the courthouse to be constructed at Thomson. In November, the Obama administration announced that five detainees would be tried in a federal civil court in New York City for their role in 9/11, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the attacks, who has been held at Guantanamo since late 2006. The five, almost certainly, will face the death penalty.

But won't some prisoners still be in legal limbo?

Precisely, and this is arguably the most controversial area of all. Between 30 and 50 individuals – so-called "law of war" detainees – will continue to be held indefinitely without trial. Some already have been so for seven years or more.

These prisoners are considered too dangerous to release, but "ineligible for prosecution" – in other words, no legal case to be made against them, even in a military commission, where standards of evidence are lower than in a civilian court. Some human rights groups are already dismissing Thomson as a "Gitmo 2".

Amnesty International said that all the administration was doing was "changing Guantanamo's Zip-code." The difference though is that the new Zip-code (61285) will be on US soil. Inmates will unquestionably be within the purview of the US legal system, and a new flood of habeas corpus appeals will surely soon be on its way to the Supreme Court.

And won't there be political problems too?

Indeed. Congress has to approve the transfer of Guantanamo inmates to the mainland, and Republicans are signalling that they will fight the proposal tooth and nail. Their main objection is on security grounds, that Thomson will become a target for Jihadists, and that the heartland will be taking into its bosom a group of fanatical desperados.

Given the large Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, the administration should prevail. But some Democrats too are uneasy, and there's always the filibuster risk in the Senate, where a majority of 60 is needed to force a final vote on any controversial issue.

So who is anyone happy about what's happening?

Surprisingly enough, the locals, the very people in the closest proximity to the alleged security risk. Thomson, a farming community of barely 500 souls close to the Mississippi river 150 miles west of Chicago, has fallen on tough times. A local army depot was closed, as was the local high school, while the national economic slump has taken its toll.

Thomson's biggest asset is the maximum-security prison on the north side of town, completed in 2001 and – that rarity in incarceration-mad America – still empty. Under the new arrangements, it would be operated and mainly staffed by the military. But new jobs would be created, possibly as many as 3,000. The plan could transform the region, Jerry "Duke" Hebeler, the president of Thomson Village, told the Chicago Tribune. "When it comes to jobs, we'll take whatever we can get. We've been waiting for this for a long time."

So what happens now?

First, Congress must give its approval to the plan, and that vote may be months off. Then the prison itself must be modified to meet the standards of the Geneva conventions (which the US claimed it has observed in practice all along at Guantanamo, even though it insists on describing inmates as "enemy combatants", not prisoners of war). Therefore the 1,600-cell facility will have to be split in two: with one part for ordinary federal prisoners, and the other for detainees captured on the battlefield, living in conditions the Geneva Conventions stipulate must not be punitive.

As well a courthouse for military commissions, a new medical facility for prisoners must also be built. Presumably too, the prison will be made even more secure, to reassure Republicans, if not the citizenry of Thomson, that America need not fear being overwhelmed by a mass escape of deadly legionnaires of Osama bin Laden.

This process too may take some while. The odds probably are that by the end of 2010 – almost nine years after it opened – Guantanamo Bay will still not be closed.

Is a maximum security jail on the US mainland the answer?

Yes...

* The United States has no need to keep these prisoners outside its borders, and Barack Obama is pledged to close Guantanamo

* Foreign states will be readier to take detainees if the US itself does

* A new prison will give the local community a much needed economic boost

No...

* The prisoners are a danger best kept at arm's length, and moving them to the mainland carries with it clear risks

* Guantanamo has been hugely controversial but it has done its job effectively. Why change it?

* A new prison alone will not resolve the legal objections to Guantanamo

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