Administration to Seek Third Continuance in Guantanamo Cases

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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Obama administration is planning to seek a third continuance in several cases at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including those of defendants charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to U.S. officials and a court filing by the Justice Department.

The expected request for a 60-day delay, which military judges would have to rule on, comes as the administration continues to formulate its plans to close the military prison.

Those plans hinge on several other developments. An interagency team led by the Justice Department is nearing the end of its review of the cases of the 226 detainees remaining at Guantanamo Bay -- a process aimed at helping officials decide which detainees can be released to third countries, which should be prosecuted, and whether those trials should be held in federal courts or military commissions.

Meanwhile, before proceeding with military commission trials, the administration is pressing Congress to enact changes to the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that would provide defendants with greater due process.

The administration first asked for a 120-day halt to proceedings at Guantanamo in January, when President Obama announced his intention to close the military prison within a year. It later obtained a second 120-day continuance, which is scheduled to expire Thursday.

Nevertheless, hearings have continued at Guantanamo Bay because the government has said that such court sessions do not amount to a "proceeding."

In addition to asking military judges for another continuance, officials say, the government will seek a stay in a competency hearing scheduled for next week in the case of Ramzi Binalshibh. Binalshibh is attempting to represent himself in the Sept. 11 case over the objections of his military attorneys, who argue that his mental fitness to do so remains in question.

Binalshibh's military attorneys said they will not contest the government's request for a delay.

In a filing Wednesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the Justice Department said that the Military Commissions Act "may be substantially amended" within 60 days and that "a decision might be made to prosecute [Binalshibh] in federal court."

The filing came in response to an emergency writ filed by Binalshibh's attorneys asking the court to find military commissions unconstitutional and to stop the competency hearing set for next week.

The government argued, in response, that the appeals court lacked jurisdiction to intervene because no final verdict has been rendered in Binalshibh's case and because he must first pursue lines of appeal in the military system.

The government is examining a number of U.S. sites as possibilities to hold some detainees after they are moved from Guantanamo.

On Wednesday, it appeared that officials had ruled out a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., as an option. Sens. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback, both Republicans from Kansas, said in a statement that they have concluded after discussions with the administration that no detainees will be moved to the site.

Federal officials have also visited a state maximum-security prison in Standish, Mich., that is slated to close Oct. 1. Local officials said they have had no recent contact with the Justice Department about converting the prison into a facility for Guantanamo detainees.

Staff writer Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.


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