By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Jan. 20 -- In one of its first actions, the Obama administration instructed military prosecutors late Tuesday to seek a 120-day suspension of legal proceedings involving detainees at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- a clear break with the approach of the outgoing Bush administration.
The instruction came in a motion filed with a military court in the case of five defendants accused of organizing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The motion called for "a continuance of the proceedings" until May 20 so that "the newly inaugurated president and his administration [can] review the military commissions process, generally, and the cases currently pending before military commissions, specifically."
The same motion was filed in another case scheduled to resume Wednesday, involving a Canadian detainee, and will be filed in all other pending matters.
Such a request may not be automatically granted by military judges, and not all defense attorneys may agree to such a suspension. But the move is a first step toward closing a detention facility and system of military trials that became a worldwide symbol of the Bush administration's war on terrorism and its unyielding attitude toward foreign and domestic critics.
The legal maneuver appears designed to provide the Obama administration time to refashion the prosecution system and potentially treat detainees as criminal defendants in federal court or have them face war-crimes charges in military courts-martial. It is also possible that the administration could re-form and relocate the military commissions before resuming trials.
The motion prompted a clear sense of disappointment among some of the military officials here who had tried to make a success of the system, despite charges that the military tribunals were a legal netherworld. Military prosecutors and other commission officials here were told not to speak to the news media, according to a Pentagon official.
"It's over; I don't want to say any more," said one official involved in the process.
But the action was cheered by military and civilian defense attorneys.
"We welcome our new commander-in-chief and this first step towards restoring the rule of law," said Army Maj. Jon Jackson, a military defense attorney for Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, one of the Sept. 11 defendants.
"This is a good step in the right direction, although we still think that the unconditional withdrawal of all charges and shutting down this tainted system is warranted," said Jamil Dakwar, director of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union. "The president's order leaves open the option of this discredited system remaining in existence."
Pretrial hearings for the 9/11 defendants were scheduled to resume Wednesday. Another case, involving Omar Khadr, a Canadian accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan when he was 15, was also about to begin.
The Bush administration opened a cluster of chain-link cages called Camp X-Ray on this naval base seven years ago, and on Jan. 11, 2002, a military flight delivered the first 20 suspected terrorists and Taliban fighters. In the ensuing years, nearly 800 prisoners would arrive.
But the military commissions system devised by the administration to try the detainees ran into numerous setbacks. The Supreme Court ruled that, contrary to administration claims, detainees at Guantanamo were entitled to challenge their detentions and that the naval base was not beyond the reach of federal law.
Eventually more than 550 detainees were released; only three were ever put on trial and convicted.
Global opinion turned dramatically against U.S. use of the facility. Organizations such as Amnesty International called it a "gulag." And both Obama and his opponent for the presidency, Sen. John McCain, said they wanted it closed -- as, finally, did former president George W. Bush.
But former vice president Richard B. Cheney said late last year that Guantanamo should be kept open until "the end of the war on terror" -- a time, he noted, that "nobody can specify."
President Obama has acknowledged in recent interviews that shutting the facility is likely to be prolonged and complex. And the administration now faces a number of potentially daunting challenges to following through on the president's campaign promise. Obama is expected to sign an executive order soon that will lay out in detail his plan to empty the facility.