Military judges will consider Wednesday whether to halt the Guantanamo war crimes trials after President Barack Obama ordered prosecutors to request a 120-day suspension during a review of the system used to try suspected terrorists.
The motions, filed just hours after Obama’s inauguration, will be heard in the cases of five men charged in the Sept. 11 attacks and of Canadian Omar Khadr, who is accused of killing an American soldier with a grenade in Afghanistan in 2002.
“It has the practical effect of stopping the process, probably forever,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, Khadr’s defense lawyer.
Obama has said he will close the military detention center in Cuba, where the U.S. holds about 245 men, and he had been expected to halt the widely criticized war-crimes trials created by former President George W. Bush and Congress in 2006.
In the motion filed for the Sept. 11 case, U.S. military prosecutor Clay Trivett says a continuance is necessary in all pending cases because the review may result in significant changes to the system.
“The interests of justice served by granting the requested continuance outweigh the interests of both the public and the accused in a prompt trial,” Trivett wrote.
The motion was written at the direction of the president and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, he said.
“It will permit the newly inaugurated president and his administration to undertake a thorough review of both the pending cases and the military commissions process generally,” he added.
There are war crimes charges pending against 21 men being held at Guantanamo, including the five charged with murder and other crimes in the Sept. 11 case. Judges would be required to suspend the other cases as well, though hearings may not be necessary.
Eric Holder, the president’s nominee for attorney general, has said the so-called military commissions lack sufficient legal protections for defendants and that they could be tried in the United States.
Relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, who were at the base this week to observe pretrial hearings, told reporters they oppose any further delay in the trials of the men charged in the case.
But human rights groups and others welcomed the development.
“It’s a great first step but it is only a first step,” said Gabor Rona, international director of Human Rights First. “The suspension of military commissions so soon after President Obama took office is an indication of the sense of urgency he feels about reversing the destructive course that the previous administration was taking in fighting terrorism.”
Jamil Dakwar, director of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union, said it was a positive step but “the president’s order leaves open the option of this discredited system remaining in existence.”
The decision was also welcomed by the European Union, which repeatedly criticized the Bush administration over alleged human rights abuses at Guantanamo as well as for the military commissions.
The European Commission “has been very pleased that one of the first actions of Mr. Obama has been to turn the page on this sad episode of Guantanamo,” said Michele Cercone, spokesman for the EU Justice and Home Affairs Commission. AP