Washington - US President Barack Obama on Thursday signed into law a compromise US budget bill that breaks years of deadlock over government spending, and a defence authorisation act that provides for the potential release of up to half of the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.
Obama, who's been on vacation in Hawaii for a week, had been expected to sign the bills, which were passed by Congress before members left for the Christmas and New Year's break.
The compromise budget bill was forged by negotiators from the House and Senate who were appointed to find common ground after the 16-day government shutdown in October. It eases spending cuts that went into affect at the beginning of the year and is designed to avert another costly shutdown.
Obama called the measure “a good first step away from the shortsighted, crisis-driven decision-making that has only served to act as a drag on our economy.”
In addition to its provisions affecting the prisoners held at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the defence authorisation act provides hazardous duty and combat pay for service members, enhances counter-terrorism initiatives abroad and expands protections for victims of sexual assault within the military.
Obama noted that he has repeatedly called on Congress to work with his administration to close the detention facility.
“The continued operation of the facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists,” Obama said.
But he said the bill “has taken a positive step” to lift restrictions on his ability to transfer detainees out of the prison and said it was “a welcome step toward closing the facility.”
The law eases restrictions that have hindered negotiations between the administration and foreign countries regarding transfers. Nevertheless, it doesn't eliminate all of the limitations on foreign transfers, Obama noted. He called for more flexibility to conduct negotiations with foreign countries regarding detainee transfers.
The facility, which now holds 160 detainees, has been the subject of controversy since it opened during the George W Bush administration. Critics allege that prisoners are denied basic human rights. Senator Carl Levin, one of the sponsors of the defence authorisation act, said that under provisions of the law, up to half of the detainees currently held at the prison could be released.
The prisoners eligible for release to third countries would be those no longer considered a threat to the United States, and whose transfer is part of a court order. Obama said he would approve a transfer “only if the threat the detainee may pose can be sufficiently mitigated and only when consistent with our humane treatment policy.”
The law also extends through 2014 current prohibitions on the construction or modifications of facilities at the prison. Obama called these prohibitions “unwise funding restrictions” and said he would continue to work with the Congress to remove them. - Sapa-dpa