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US: US drops 'enemy combatant' status

14 Mar 2009 12:03 PM

WASHINGTON, March 13 AFP - President Barack Obama's administration on Friday dropped the "enemy combatant" designation for inmates at Guantanamo Bay prison and vowed to draw on international law for its detention policy.

In a court filing with a district court in Washington, the US Justice Department submitted a new definition for the government's authority to hold detainees at the US naval base in southern Cuba.

"It does not employ the phrase 'enemy combatant,'" the Justice Department stressed in a statement.

The category had been used by the administration of former president George W Bush to justify the legal framework of indefinitely holding "war on terror" suspects at Guantanamo without charge.

Bush had argued that his status as commander-in-chief had allowed him to order such indefinite detentions.

But the new policy "draws on the international laws of war to inform the statutory authority conferred by Congress," the statement said.

It "does not rely on the president's authority as commander-in-chief independent of Congress's specific authorisation."

"As we work toward developing a new policy to govern detainees, it is essential that we operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values, and is governed by law," said Attorney General Eric Holder.

"The change we've made today meets each of those standards and will make our nation stronger."

Only individuals who "substantially supported" Al-Qaeda, Taliban or "associated forces" would be considered detainable under the new policy, the Justice Department said.

"The particular facts and circumstances justifying detention will vary from case to case, and may require the identification and analysis of various analogues from traditional international armed conflicts," it added.

"Accordingly, the contours of the 'substantial support' and 'associated forces' bases of detention will need to be further developed in their application to concrete facts in individual cases."

In his first week in office, Obama ordered an interagency review of Guantanamo as part of his plan to close the facility which still holds more than 240 prisoners by early 2010.

The outcome of the review "may lead to further refinements of the government's position," the Justice Department said.

In its filing, the Justice Department asserted however that it still had the right to hold detainees even if they are not captured on the battlefield.

Government lawyers also rejected detainees' lawsuits that argued that only those individuals who participated directly in attacks should be detained.

"The argument should be rejected," the filing read.

"Law of war principles do not limit the United States' detention authority to this limited category of individuals. A contrary conclusion would improperly reward an enemy that violates the laws of war by operating as a loose network and camouflaging its forces as civilians."

The remote Guantanamo prison camp was opened in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and became synonymous with Bush's "war on terror" policies.

Obama has been working to overturn many of the policies associated with the past administration, including finding ways to close the camp.

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs Dan Fried was named on Thursday as an envoy to work with other countries to accept Guantanamo detainees.

The 27 European Union countries are struggling to define a common position on how best to help, as they await an official request to accept former inmates.

A high-level EU delegation is set to travel to Washington on March 16 to 17 to discuss the camp and determine how US authorities decided that around 60 of the prisoners could be released, but could not be hosted by the United States.

The EU's Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot told AFP the 27-nation bloc had an exacting list of questions about inmates of the notorious prison and wants precise answers.