GUANTANAMO BAY US NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AFP) – Barack Obama ordered prosecutors to seek a suspension Wednesday of military trials at the Guantanamo “war on terror” prison camp on in one of his first acts as new US president.
Obama has vowed to close the prison on a naval base in Cuba, which has become a symbol of US excesses around the world.
Military judges were to rule Wednesday on the move, which would affect the trials of five alleged plotters of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the case of the last Westerner held at the camp, for allegedly killing a US soldier in Afghanistan.
“In the interests of justice, and at the direction of the president of the United States and the secretary of defense, the government respectfully requests the military commission grant a continuance of the proceedings,” said prosecution documents seen late Tuesday.
Lawyer Clayton Trivett is to present the motion to two judges: Stephen Henley who is in charge of the case of five men charged with having helped organize the 9/11 attacks; and Patrick Parrish who is examining the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian arrested when he was 15 in Afghanistan accused of killing a soldier.
Obama issued the order regarding the suspension of cases even before formally ordering the prison camp shut down and with pre-trial procedures already well underway.
The suspensions would “permit the newly inaugurated president and his administration time to review the military commissions process, generally, and the cases currently pending before military commissions, specifically,” Trivett’s document said, adding that the halt should take effect until May 20.
“The secretary of defense issued his order to the chief prosecutor in order to provide the administration sufficient time to conduct a review of detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” it said.
The time should be used “to evaluate the cases of detainees not approved for release or transfer to determine whether prosecution may be warranted for any offenses those detainees may have committed and to determine which forum best suits any future prosecution.”
The special military tribunals were established in 2006 by President George W. Bush’s administration to try terror suspects under separate rules from regular civilian or military courts.
Twenty-one people have been charged and 14 out of an estimated 245 remaining prisoners have appeared before judges, the Pentagon said.
Obama’s attorney general designate Eric Holder said this month that the Obama team was already taking steps to prepare to close the prison. The military commissions did not provide enough legal protections to the defendants, he added, arguing they could be tried in regular US courts.
Established in early 2002 following the US-led offensive in Afghanistan, the detention center was designed to hold suspected terrorists. The Bush administration claimed they were “enemy combatants” of a non-state organization and so not covered by the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners of war.
Over the years, some 800 detainees have gone through Guantanamo, including 520 transferred to other countries to be held or released. Sixty have been cleared for release or transfer, but their home countries have been reluctant to take them.
Self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Walid bin Attash, Mustapha al-Hawsawi and Ramzi Binalshibh appeared at hearings this week amid tight security.
Final motions have also begun for Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen arrested in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old for allegedly killing a US soldier with a hand grenade.
Khadr’s defense has focused on the interrogations their client underwent in Afghanistan and later at Guantanamo, while predicting that the trial set to begin on January 26 would never take place.