Prosecutors request suspension of Guantanamo trials on order from Obama

Military prosecutors in the U.S. war-crimes trials at Guantanamo Bay have requested a suspension in proceedings on order from newly installed U.S. President Barack Obama.

Military prosecutors have requested a suspension of all trials at Guantanamo Bay at the behest of newly installed U.S. President Barack Obama.

Obama verbally requested a 120-day continuance in the trials through U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, according to a spokesman for the military commissions at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

Prosecutors then filed the request with judges hearing the cases of Canadian Omar Khadr and five men accused in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"In the interests of justice, and at the direction of the president of the United States and secretary of defence, the government respectfully requests the military commission grant a continuance of the proceedings… until 20 May," states the motion, filed late Tuesday.

It says the adjournment is needed to permit the new president and his administration "time to review the military commissions process, generally, and the cases currently pending before military commissions."

The pause in proceedings would also provide the administration time to conduct a review of the cases of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay to determine whether future prosecution is warranted and if so, in which forum.

Up to judges' discretion

The motion, which applies to all cases that have been referred to the military commission, will be argued Wednesday morning. It will be up to the judges to decide whether to grant adjournments.

Obama has already said he intends to shut down the military prison at Guantanamo and has expressed disdain for the war-crimes trials, an offshore legal system created by former president George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress.

It is unclear how long it would take to close the prison or what the new administration would do with the estimated 250 prisoners being held there. Most are accused of links to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, although the vast majority have not been charged with a crime, and many have been imprisoned for up to seven years.   

The Pentagon currently has war-crimes charges pending against nearly 20 men.

The adjournment request comes after U.S. navy military lawyer Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler said earlier Tuesday that prosecutors were seeking to suspend the tribunals until they could get more guidance from Obama's administration on which direction to take. 

Kuebler, who is representing Khadr, said Tuesday he would strenuously object to the request for a 120-day continuance because it would leave those accused in limbo for the next four months.

The military lawyer is instead seeking to have the charges against Khadr, the only Western citizen detained at Guantanamo, withdrawn completely by the U.S. Department of Defence.

Khadr trial was to begin next week

Pre-trial hearings recently began in the case of Khadr — who is accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan — as well as in the case of the five men charged with orchestrating the Sept. 11 hijackings.

The Pentagon alleges that after a July 2002 attack by U.S. soldiers on a suspected al-Qaeda compound, Khadr threw a grenade that killed one of the soldiers, Sgt. Christopher Speer, and wounded another.

Khadr, whose trial was scheduled to begin next week, has been held at Guantanamo Bay since shortly after his arrest in 2002 at age 15. He is now 22. 

Despite growing calls for Khadr's repatriation, the Canadian government has remained firm in its position not to intervene in his case, saying a judicial process is underway.

Col. Peter Masciola, the head of defence for the commissions, didn't say whether he would challenge the prosecution's motion for continuance in the cases of Khadr and the other defendants, but he said the commissions should be shut down for good.

Obama's nominee for attorney general has also criticized the commissions, saying they lack sufficient legal protections for defendants and that the detainees could be tried in the United States. Among the major differences between the military tribunals and civilian U.S. trials:

  • The jury can vote to convict with only two-thirds support, whereas civilian trials require unanimity.
  • Some hearsay evidence and coerced prisoners' admissions, banned in civilian courts, will be allowed. These terms have sparked heavy criticism from legal advocates, especially since a spate of organizations, from Amnesty International to the Red Cross to the FBI and CIA, have acknowledged that inmates at Guantanamo have been tortured.
  • Judge and jurors are allowed to question witnesses, not just lawyers.

Of the 775 prisoners who have been held at Guantanamo Bay at one time or another since 2001, about 525 were released without charge, and two have been convicted of offences.

Australian David Hicks pleaded guilty in March 2007 to providing support for terrorism and was sent back to his home country to serve the remaining nine months of a seven-year sentence, while Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's one-time chauffeur, was found guilty last August of the same crime and sentenced to a further five months in prison on top of time served.

With files from the Canadian Press and Associated Press