By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The chief military judge at Guantanamo Bay announced his immediate retirement yesterday, effectively scuttling the slim chances that the trial of conspirators in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks could get underway before the Bush administration ends.
Judge Ralph H. Kohlmann, a Marine colonel, had been overseeing proceedings against major defendants at the military prison in Cuba, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the attacks. It has long been a goal of some Pentagon officials, particularly those appointed by the Bush administration, to begin the capital trial of the Sept. 11 conspirators before leaving office.
Kohlmann, who was scheduled to retire in April and already had lined up a job, appointed Judge Stephen Henley, an Army colonel, to take over the trial of Mohammed and four co-defendants.
Henley now must hold a hearing at which the defendants can explore the judge's potential biases, a proceeding that Kohlmann had already overseen. Henley also will have to acquaint himself with Kohlmann's decisions in the case and prepare for upcoming hearings on defense motions. At the same time, Henley is scheduled to oversee a separate trial of a Guantanamo detainee in January.
"I didn't think there was a chance this would go to trial any time soon, even with Judge Kohlmann," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, a military defense lawyer who represents Ammar al-Baluchi (whose formal name is Abdul Aziz Ali), an alleged Sept. 11 co-conspirator.
Pentagon officials said they were unable to reach Kohlmann for comment Monday.
The ACLU questioned the motives behind Kohlmann's departure, suggesting it may be part of a ploy to speed up proceedings.
"We cannot allow the Bush administration to sabotage President-elect Obama's plans by ramming through these cases in its last days while the new administration is making plans to dismantle the military commission system," Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said in a statement. Obama also has pledged to close the military prison.
But Pentagon officials said there was no ulterior motive.
"It is not uncommon for a judge to change during the course of a case," said Joseph DellaVedova, a spokesman for the Office of Military Commissions. "Folks are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill and dig for connections that aren't there."
At a hearing in September, Kohlmann rejected a motion by Mohammed that the judge disqualify himself because his imminent retirement could disrupt the process.
Kohlmann, who is responsible for appointing judges to cases at Guantanamo, selected himself for the 9/11 proceeding. He said in September that Mohammed's claims were "completely wrong" and rejected the motion.