Since its establishment under the Bush administration in 2002, the prison at Guantanamo Bay has been part of a distressing chapter in American history, rife with allegations and accounts of prisoner abuse and torture. The prison was established as an indefinite detention facility and housed those designated as “enemy combatants,” who — according to the Bush administration — were outside the bounds of the law and not entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention or legal recourse to challenge their detention. Lawsuits on behalf of the detainees eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which has repeatedly ruled in their favor by granting prisoners the rights of habeas corpus and exposing procedural flaws in military tribunals constructed under Bush that made neutral arbitration impossible.

There was reason for optimism when President Barack Obama was elected. He promised to close the prison by January 2010 and took tangible steps toward that goal. Notably, the administration halted military trials in 2009 and attempted later that year to transfer detainees to the United States for civilian trials, which failed because it didn’t receive funding from the U.S. Senate. But now we’re several months into 2011, and Guantanamo’s closure looks to be a broken promise, as Obama has retreated in face of political opposition. In a disappointing action on Monday, he issued an executive order to resume military tribunals.

It’s important to remember that the Obama administration has handled the situation much better than its predecessors. New military tribunal procedures require a periodical review of prisoners’ status and ensure that defendants have access to legal counsel. Additionally, Obama has promised to adhere to the Geneva Convention.

But these changes are stop gap measures that don’t address structural problems with the Guantanamo Bay prison. Though the revised procedures may seem fair in theory, they are still prone to abuse. In the end, representatives of the executive branch may use their discretion to decide whether a prisoner may be indefinitely detained — this is hardly equivalent to due process. Not only is this procedure unfair, it’s unnecessary. So far, the one criminal tried in civilian court — Ahmed Ghailani — was convicted on a conspiracy charge and sentenced to life in prison despite the exclusion of a key witness whose identity was ascertained by torture. At a fundamental level, criminal prosecution of detainees affirms our faith in the rule of law and must, at the very least, be given the chance to work on a consistent basis.

The blame can’t fall solely on the Obama administration, which has faced logistical and political obstacles in its attempts to try prisoners in the American legal system. Obama has faced opposition from Congress and the media in his attempts to try detainees in civilian courts. This needs to end. The damage done to America’s reputation — in the form of international criticism and increased terrorism recruitment — by keeping Guantanamo Bay open far outweighs any potential security threats from housing terrorists in maximum-security U.S. prisons.

Though the administration reiterated its promise this week to eventually close the Guantanamo Bay prison, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. Obama needs to show that he’s actually committed to this goal, and there must be a cooperative effort to close the detention facility as quickly as possible.

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