In announcing the decision, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said he will return the case to the Defense Department “reluctantly” and blamed the move on Congress, which has erected a series of barriers to bringing detainees to the United States, even for prosecution.
“As the president has said, those unwise and unwarranted restrictions undermine our counterterrorism efforts and could harm our national security,” Holder said. “Decisions about who, where and how to prosecute have always been — and must remain — the responsibility of the executive branch.”
Holder added that the Justice Department had been “prepared to bring a powerful case” against the suspects. To underscore the point, the department unsealed a December 2009 indictment on Monday that outlined the case prosecutors had planned to present. A federal judge dismissed the indictment Monday at the request of federal prosecutors.
The White House, which has played a central role in formulating Guantanamo Bay policy, did not issue a statement on the reversal and referred all questions to the Justice Department.
The five defendants will now be tried in the courtroom at Guantanamo Bay that George W. Bush’s administration built for them. They were arraigned there in 2008 and have not left the detention facility since their arrival in September 2006. But President Obama stopped their prosecution immediately after he took office and promised to close the prison within a year.
Navy Capt. John F. Murphy, the chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, said Monday that he plans to swear charges against the five men in the near future and that he will again seek to prosecute them in a joint trial.
Advocates of military trials, including some leading Republicans on Capitol Hill, said the administration had belatedly bowed to the inevitable.
“As I have been saying since Day One, these terror trials belong in a military commission at Guantanamo. I am absolutely shocked that it took Attorney General Holder 507 days to come to this realization,” said Rep. Peter T. King, (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “Today’s reversal is yet another vindication of President Bush’s detention policies by the Obama administration and is welcome news to the families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, who will finally see long-awaited justice.”
Human rights groups questioned not only the appropriateness of the prosecution venue but also the belief that it will bring anything approaching swift justice.