The Obama administration is considering seeking a change in the special US military trials for Guantanamo Bay terrorism suspects to allow those who face the death penalty to plead guilty without getting a full trial, The New York Times reported on Friday.
The trials, formally known as military commissions, have been effectively frozen since January while the administration weighs its options. Human rights groups have said the commissions, created by former President George W. Bush, are fundamentally unfair to defendants.
The Times said the changes being explored by the Obama administration would aim to resolve an ambiguity in the 2006 law governing the military commissions.
The newspaper said the proposal to allow a guilty plea in a death penalty case was contained in a draft of legislation that would be submitted to Congress for consideration.
Current law does not make clear whether guilty pleas are permitted in death penalty cases in military commissions.
While US civilian courts typically allow such pleas in capital cases, US military law prohibits members of the armed services who face capital charges from pleading guilty in a military trial.
In part to ensure fairness when execution is possible, prosecutors under military law must prove a defendant guilty in a trial even when the defendant wants to plead guilty.
The only death penalty case currently before a military commission is the one involving five detainees charged as the planners of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, including the self-proclaimed mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, according to the Times.
During a December hearing at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the five prisoners said they wanted to plead guilty, and military prosecutors argued they should be allowed to do so. Defense lawyers said the commissions should bar the guilty pleas. The military judge has not yet resolved the issue.
The detainees have stated that pleading guilty would help them achieve what they see as martyrdom.
Citing unnamed sources, the Times reported that the proposal on permitting guilty pleas had been presented to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The newspaper said the proposal would simplify the government's task of prosecuting men who have confessed to acts of terrorism but whose legal cases present challenges. For example, evidence may include confessions given following interrogation methods that some critics consider torture.
The Obama administration has been struggling with how to deal with the 240 detainees still being held at Guantanamo.
The prison, opened in 2002, has been seen by many critics as a symbol of detainee abuse and detention without charges under the Bush administration.