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Judge wants to decide Guantanamo cases this year

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge said on Thursday he wanted to decide by the end of the year 12 cases involving 35 Guantanamo Bay prisoners who seek their release.

“This is going to be moved as fast as possible,” U.S. District Judge Richard Leon told lawyers for the prisoners and the U.S. Justice Department. “These men have waited long enough to get a decision.”

There are about 265 detainees at the U.S. military Base at Guantanamo in Cuba, set up in 2002 to hold terrorism suspects captured after the Sept. 11 attacks. Most have been held for years without being charged and many have complained of abuse.

It marked Leon’s first hearing following last month’s landmark Supreme Court ruling that allowed prisoners held at Guantanamo to go before federal judges in Washington to seek their release.

“The Supreme Court has spoken. They want this done. By God, we’ll get this done,” he said.

Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan is overseeing and coordinating about 125 cases that have been brought by other Guantanamo detainees.

But Leon, who decided not to turn over his cases to Hogan, said he wanted to decide them before the transition when the next president takes office in January.

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Both Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, have vowed to close the Guantanamo prison.

Leon said he would not allow the Department of Defense or the CIA to delay the cases while reviewing classified information used to hold the prisoners as enemy combatants. That information has to be reviewed before it can be turned over to detainees’ lawyers.

“Let there be no doubt that the Department of Defense and the CIA must be prepared to come to the courtroom and defend their decisions if we get any sense that there is an effort by those agencies to slow” down the proceedings, Leon said.

The judge told Assistant Attorney General Gregory Katsas that he probably would require the government to show why it wants to file new evidence to justify holding a detainee.

Leon ordered both sides to provide status reports by July 18, addressing issues including when and where the detainee had been taken into custody. He scheduled closed meetings with both sides for July 23 and 24.

Leon said he expected to identify problems and resolve them quickly over the next two months and that he would then hold hearings on the cases over the next four months.

Lawyer Stephen Oleskey, who is planning to go to Guantanamo next week, said he was glad the cases would move forward rapidly and called it heartening news for his clients, who have waited years for a federal court hearing.

Editing by David Alexander and Todd Eastham