Leading article: A prison that stains US moral authority

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The barbed wire fences of Guantanamo's infamous Camp X-Ray have been reclaimed by tropical vegetation and the detainees have been released from their steel shackles. But, as our series of special reports this week highlights, there are still 176 men held in custody in open defiance of the rule of law at the US naval base in Cuba where they have little hope of release. Their continuing detention, eight months after Barack Obama's self-imposed deadline for closing the camps, is an ongoing affront to international law and critically weakens America's moral authority.

That authority was further undermined this week when the US administration resumed the hearings of the discredited military commissions which ensure American soldiers, sailors and airmen sit in judgment on those accused of war crimes against America. The first case to be tried under the new commissions is that of child soldier Omar Khadr, who was 15 years old when he was accused of throwing a grenade which killed a US serviceman in Afghanistan in 2002. Mr Khadr's trial has been condemned by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who stress that it is America which has led the world in recognising that children caught in war zones in Africa must be treated as victims and not combatants.

The Khadr case serves only to confirm the alternative legal universe in which Guantanamo exists. Long after its founding fathers were ejected from office, the prison camp continues to defy both the will of a president and the condemnation of the world. President Obama appears powerless as he watches his administration being sucked into a legal black hole. He has done nothing to stop government lawyers continuing to defend America's right to imprison men for eight years without charge or trial by arguing that the US remains in a state of war with al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

The Pentagon has said that it does not have to grant enemy combatants the right to a lawyer or access to the courts to challenge their detention. That argument was struck down by the US Supreme Court. The Obama administration now says that, while it accepts that the Geneva Conventions apply to Taliban detainees, it does not believe they are entitled to Prisoner of War status and the protections that go with it.

There is no doubt that President Obama's intention to deal with Guantanamo Bay is honestly held. Before his inauguration he said its closure would send a message to the world that America was serious about its values. But the greatest obstacle to closing the seven prison camps is not the perceived threat posed by the 176 detainees who live a relatively peaceful existence in a communal environment on the edge of the waters of the Caribbean. The greatest obstacle is the destructive politics surrounding any Guantanamo deal.

When the White House tried to implement a transfer policy by building a new prison near Chicago in Illinois, the Obama administration ran into fierce local and national opposition. First the people of Illinois raised objections, and then Congress postured to block any plan that involved the movement of prisoners to camps on American soil. The truth is that President Obama has run out of ideas and the White House has quietly given up the idea of closing Guantanamo.

Any international solution also looks doomed to fail. Mr Obama has discovered that on this issue there is little interest in saving America from its biggest human rights problem. The desperate search to find homes for the majority of detainees who have been cleared for release has run into the buffers. There is also scant prospect of even putting on trial the so-called high-value detainees held in isolation at the camp. Unless Barack Obama stands up to both Congress and US nay-sayers, Guantanamo Bay and its military commissions will remain an appalling stain on the reputation of his administration and those that follow.

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