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Human rights groups protest new $49 million Guantánamo prison

If ever there was a sign that the military prison in Guantánamo Bay isn't closing any time soon, it came Thursday when the United States Southern Command asked Congress for $49 million to construct a new prison building on top of other renovations to the military compound Barack Obama promised to shut down during his first week in office.

The request increases the potential taxpayer bill for renovating Guantánamo Bay to an estimated $195.7 million, a development that is angering human rights groups who want to see the prison closed, not expanded.

"These are more U.S. taxpayer dollars being spent on the pointless and damaging policy of keeping Guantánamo open," Laura Pitter, counterterrorism advisor for Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy. "In Obama's own words, Guantánamo weakens U.S. national security. The U.S. should either prosecute those detained at Guantánamo against whom it has any credible evidence or release them to home or third countries."

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, expressed similar disappointment in an interview with FP. "This is just absurd," she said. "Here's the president -- who campaigned on closing Guantánamo Bay -- extending and renovating it. What he needs to do is renovate his current policy and release the people who've been cleared for release, shut down the prison, and bring the rest of the prisoners to the United States for trial."

The human rights advocates emphasized that only six of the 166 detainees in Guantánamo face formal charges and that many have been cleared for release. "The administration should focus on the underlying policies as much as the infrastructure that supports them," Raha Wala of Human Rights First told FP. "There are 86 cleared detainees that can be transferred if the administration invests the political capital to do so." 

Of course, efforts to scale back the controversial prison have also been hampered by Congress, which passed legislation in December 2010 effectively banning the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to the United States for their day in court. The bill prevents the Pentagon from spending funds on the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners to the United States for any reason. "It also says the Pentagon can't spend money on any U.S. facility aimed at housing detainees moved from Guantanamo, in a slap at the administration's study of building such a facility in Illinois," reported the Wall Street Journal at the time.

The latest test of the administration's will to prosecute terror suspects in civilian courts came with the arrest of former al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden. Earlier this month, Abu Ghaith pleaded not guilty to conspiring to kill Americans in federal court in New York City. At the time, Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, criticized the administration for not sending Abu Ghaith to Guantánamo.

"The extradition of senior al Qaeida member and spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, to the United States to stand trial in criminal court underscores a dangerous desire to return to treating al Qaeda as a law enforcement problem, not a national security issue," wrote Rogers in a column for U.S. News and World Report. "Throughout the 1990s, America responded to al Qaeda by treating its members like common criminals. The 9/11 attacks showed the devastating results of that approach."

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