A US military judge on Wednesday halted the trial of five prisoners accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks, giving President Barack Obama the time he sought to decide whether to scrap the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals.
Hours after taking office on Tuesday, Obama ordered prosecutors in the Guantanamo court to ask for a 120-day halt in all pending cases. He asked for time to review the cases and decide what forum best suits any future prosecution.
The move freezes proceedings against 21 prisoners at least until late May but was viewed by defence lawyers as the death knell for the special tribunals established by the Bush administration at the Guantanamo Bay naval base.
Self-confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and three of his four co-defendants objected to the delay. They had said in previous hearings that they wanted to plead guilty to the mass murder charges that could result in their execution. But military prosecutors said it should be up to the president to decide whether to continue his predecessor’s policies.
Another Guantanamo judge halted the case against young Canadian captive Omar Khadr, who was captured when he was 15 and is accused of murdering a US soldier with a grenade during a firefight in Afghanistan.
“The practical effect of today’s ruling is to pronounce the military commissions process dead,” said Khadr’s military lawyer, Navy Lt Cmdr William Kuebler, referring to the trials by their formal name.
Khadr, now 22, is the last citizen of a Western nation held at Guantanamo. His lawyers have argued that he was a child soldier conscripted by his late father, an al Qaeda financier, and that any prosecution should take place in the regular US or Canadian courts.
Human rights activists and military defense lawyers had urged Obama to halt the special tribunals and urged him to move the prosecutions into the regular US courts for trial under long-established rules.