GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A U.S. military judge on Wednesday halted the trial of five prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 attacks, giving President Barack Obama the time he sought to decide whether to scrap the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals.
Obama has pledged to shut down the Guantanamo prison camp that was widely seen as a stain on the United States’ human rights record and a symbol of detainee abuse and detention without charge under the Bush administration.
If Obama signs a draft order obtained by Reuters on Wednesday, the prison camp would close within a year.
Hours after taking office on Tuesday, Obama ordered prosecutors in the Guantanamo court to ask for a 120-day halt in all pending cases. He asked for time to review the cases and decide what forum best suits any future prosecution.
The move freezes proceedings against 21 prisoners at least until late May but was viewed by defense lawyers as the death knell for the special tribunals that the Bush administration established at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in southeast Cuba.
Self-confessed September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants objected to the delay. They had said in previous hearings that they wanted to plead guilty to the mass murder charges that could result in their execution for the hijacked plane attacks in 2001 that killed nearly 3,000 people.
But military prosecutors said it should be up to the president to decide whether to continue his predecessor’s policies.
Another Guantanamo judge halted the case against young Canadian captive Omar Khadr, who was captured at age 15 and is accused of murdering a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002.
“The practical effect of today’s ruling is to pronounce the military commissions process dead,” said his lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, referring to the trials by their formal name.
Khadr, now 22, is the last citizen of a Western nation held at Guantanamo. His lawyers have argued that he was a child soldier conscripted by his late father, an al Qaeda financier, and that any prosecution should take place in the regular U.S. or Canadian courts.
Human rights activists and military defense lawyers had urged Obama to halt the special tribunals and move the prosecutions into the regular U.S. courts for trial under long-established rules.
The trials have moved in fits and spurts amid numerous legal challenges from defense lawyers who said fair trials were impossible in a politically tainted system that allowed hearsay evidence and coerced testimony.
“It would be a terrible mistake to try a case as important as the September 11 prosecution in such a crude and untested system,” said Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch.
Five people who lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks were flown to Guantanamo by the Pentagon to attend pretrial hearings and were furious when the proceedings were halted.
Lorraine Arias Believeau, whose brother Adam died in the World Trade Center, said Guantanamo was the best and safest place for the trials.
“This was an act of war, not a traffic ticket. It should be in military court,” she said.
The Bush administration had said it planned to try 80 prisoners on war crimes charges, but only three cases have been completed.
About 245 foreign captives are still held at the detention center, which opened in January 2002 to house foreign terrorism suspects and has been a widely criticized part of the U.S. war on terrorism that Bush declared after the September 11 attacks.
In Washington, a U.S. district judge granted the Justice Department’s request for a two-week delay in the federal court case of three Guantanamo prisoners seeking their release.
The judge gave the department until February 4 to file a status report saying how it intends to proceed. There are about 200 cases pending in the Washington federal court from Guantanamo detainees seeking their release.
Additional reporting by Andrew Gray, James Vicini and Jeff Mason in Washington