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Protesters Mark 10th Anniversary of Gitmo

January 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, A decade after the detention center at Guantanamo began accepting prisoners, the debate continues over how the U.S. treats its terror suspects.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: They rallied in the rain today across from the White House to protest the ongoing detention of foreign terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Some of the more than 200 protesters wore orange jumpsuits and black hoods to mark 10 years since the first 20 prisoners arrived at Guantanamo. At its peak, the prison housed nearly 700 men. More than 500 were released or transferred to other countries during the Bush administration.

The facility currently holds 171 detainees, with 36 awaiting military tribunals on war crimes charges. Among them is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, expected to be arraigned at Guantanamo later this year. The Obama administration had wanted to try him in federal criminal court in New York City, but dropped the idea in the face of strong opposition.

Congress has since barred moving any of the detainees to the U.S. mainland for trial. That, in turn, has effectively prevented any attempt to close the prison once and for all.

In the meantime, there’s a renewed focus on the broader question of how to handle terror suspects. A provision in the recently passed national defense authorization bill requires the military to take custody of foreign terror suspects linked to al-Qaida, unless the president specifically rules they should be held by civilian authorities.

It also allows indefinite military detention without the right to trial. But the interpretation of both provisions remains in dispute. The bill was debated in the House of Representatives last month.

REP. ALCEE HASTINGS, D-Fla.: Well, here we are today trying to return to an era of arbitrary justice, witch-hunts and fear-mongering. While this measure includes an exemption for United States citizens, it does not protect them from indefinite detention.

REP. MAC THORNBERRY, R-Texas: The provisions in this bill, Mr. Speaker, are a small step towards having this Congress back involved in making these detention — detention decisions.
JEFFREY BROWN: White House officials initially warned that President Obama would veto the bill. Congress made modifications, and he ultimately signed it. But he added in a statement: “I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists.”

The protesters at today’s rally in Washington made clear the issue will not go away, and legal challenges to the new law remain possible.