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Published June 14, 2011, 03:22 PM

Sen. Hoeven Wants Guantanamo Kept Open

North Dakota U.S. Sen. John Hoeven said Tuesday he supports legislation to block President Barack Obama's push to close the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying it is needed to detain prisoners of war and suspected terrorists.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota U.S. Sen. John Hoeven said Tuesday he supports legislation to block President Barack Obama's push to close the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying it is needed to detain prisoners of war and suspected terrorists.

Hoeven and three other senators visited Guantanamo on Monday to inspect the facility, and Hoeven said he was convinced that its 171 inmates were being treated well.

Hoeven said he spoke to the facility's commander, Navy Rear Adm. Jeffrey Harbeson, and several guards, toured the facility and observed some prisoners up close. Hoeven said he did not speak to any prisoners.

"These are terrorists and enemy combatants that we're trying to deal with in the best way possible," Hoeven said. "These are people that have attacked us, made war on us ... but we still give them due process."

Obama promised repeatedly during his campaign to close Guantanamo. The president signed an executive order on Jan. 22, 2009, two days after he took office, directing that the prison be shut down within one year. It remains open.

Hoeven said he will cosponsor a bill introduced by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., that will designate Guantanamo as a permanent location for detaining, questioning and putting on trial any prisoners. The U.S. government considers them enemy combatants who do not have some rights normally accorded to prison inmates on American soil.

Ayotte's legislation also would bar federal money from being used to build, remodel or maintain terrorist detention facilities in the United States.

Andrea Prasow, a senior counterterrorism attorney for Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C., said tours such as the one taken by Hoeven do not provide a true picture of conditions at Guantanamo.

"Without the opportunity to interview individual detainees without detention authorities present, it is virtually impossible for anyone to understand what really takes place there," Prasow said. "Delegations are never allowed to meet with individual detainees, and I just don't think that looking at a cell, or seeing a soccer yard, is remotely sufficient to let someone understand what conditions are like."

Conditions at the prison are generally good, but the strain on prisoners who have been held for years without charges or a trial can damage their mental health, Prasow said.

"The greater concern right now is the mental health effects of long-term detention without trial, which I think can't really be understated," she said.

Hoeven said keeping Guantanamo open to detain and try prisoners would also save money.

For example, the U.S. Justice Department estimated it would cost $75 million to put one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, on trial in federal court in New York City. That would pay much of Guantanamo's annual operating budget, Hoeven said.

The plans to try Mohammed in New York have been dropped. He is being held at Guantanamo, where military prosecutors last month re-filed terrorism and murder charges against him and four other men.

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