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Hambali and the Guantanamo problem

An Indonesian Police Officer holds a picture of Hambali, 07/03
Hambali was South East Asia's most-wanted man at the time of his capture

By Joe Boyle
BBC News

Many rights activists and politicians hailed US President Barack Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp - but the case of Bali bombing suspect Hambali shows how difficult a task it could be.

In 2003 the US government's "war on terror" was at its height.

Saddam Hussein was ousted from power in Iraq, efforts to rid Afghanistan of Taleban militants continued, and the countries on the "axis of evil" were further ostracised.

All over Asia, US agents were working to track down insurgents and piece together an emergent network of Islamic militant groups.

On 14 August, one of the biggest breakthroughs came almost by accident.

The authorities in Thailand had caught South East Asia's most-wanted man - Hambali.

He was suspected of orchestrating the Bali bomb attacks in 2002 that killed more than 200 people, as well as being the go-between for al-Qaeda and several regional militant groups - delivering orders and disbursing funds for Osama Bin Laden.

He was also said to be the operations chief for Jemaah Islamiah, the militant organisation many blame for the Bali bomb attacks.

Shortly after he was captured, Thai police handed him to US agents, and incumbent US President George W Bush reviled him as "one of the world's most dangerous terrorists".

Relatives of victims of the Bali attacks breathed a sigh of relief, believing justice might be served quickly.

But since then very little has been heard of Hambali.

An obvious solution?

One of the few unclassified documents mentioning him is a review of detention at Guantanamo Bay on 28 March 2007, which reveals that he denies at least some of the charges against him.

Other papers show he is regarded as a "high-value" detainee - a US military term for someone believed to be from the highest ranks of al-Qaeda.

Indonesia's policy of routinely granting sentence remissions to nearly all prisoners continued to benefit convicted terrorists, resulting in several early releases
Country Reports on Terrorism
US state department, 30 April 2007

But he has never faced trial, and the US Department of Justice has confirmed that Hambali was not one of the detainees charged by the military commission.

Now the Obama administration has given itself a year to close Guantanamo, Hambali's case has become urgent once again.

Observers say it should be one of the most straightforward cases to resolve - an obvious solution being to return Hambali to his home country, Indonesia, to face trial.

After all, most of the major crimes he is accused of were carried out in Indonesia - and the US has frequently lavished praise on Indonesia's attempts to battle Islamic militancy.

'Petty squabbles'

But beneath the surface, analysts say there has been friction between the two countries.

In a 2007 review of anti-terrorism policies in Asia, the US state department pointed out: "Indonesia's policy of routinely granting sentence remissions to nearly all prisoners continued to benefit convicted terrorists, resulting in several early releases."

Undated handout of Hambali
Victims' families say they still do not really know what happened in Bali

And no Indonesian official has ever been allowed to interview Hambali at Guantanamo - something which Indonesia expert Kirsten Schulze, from the London School of Economics, says has caused problems in the past.

"Instead of two governments which actually do have a good working relationship working together and sharing information to build a solid case [against Hambali], you have organisations not sharing because there are petty squabbles going on," she said.

Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told the BBC last week his government had not yet taken a decision on whether to ask the US to extradite Hambali.

But he said Indonesia had made several requests to see Hambali - the most recent communication coming after President Obama was elected.

"When we heard about the intention to close Guantanamo, we contacted the American government to ask to be given access to Hambali - but we have not received any conclusive feedback," he said.

Balancing act

Families of victims of the Bali attacks have also expressed concern that a conviction in either the US or Indonesia could lead to the death penalty.

Susanna Miller, whose brother was killed in the Bali bombing, says execution would act as a propaganda tool for the militants by making them martyrs in their supporters' eyes.

She has been lobbying the US government for a number of years to release Hambali to an international court, in the hope that the truth about Bali could emerge without Hambali being executed.

"I and a great many of the other relatives just want the full story of the Bali bombings - how they happened, who did it, where the finance came from, where the intelligence came from, where the bomb-making capabilities came from," she said.

"At the moment, it's not clear."

Which points to another possible difficulty - is there enough permissible evidence to convict him?

A US Department of Justice spokesman said Hambali's case would be reviewed along with the cases of all the other Guantanamo detainees.

He said it was too soon to comment on possible outcomes of the review.

But the difficulties in resolving Hambali's case are almost certain to be repeated for each one of those held at Guantanamo Bay.

It is a delicate balancing act for the Obama administration - juggling legalities, diplomacy and the requirements of justice.

The fear is that some detainees could be punished for crimes they did not commit, while dangerous criminals may be set free.

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