GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - A U.S. military judge on Wednesday indefinitely delayed the January trial of a young Afghan captive, leaving the future course of justice at the Guantanamo prison camp in the hands of President-elect Barack Obama.
Defendant Mohammed Jawad had been set to go to trial at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba on January 5 on charges of throwing a grenade that injured two U.S. soldiers and their Afghan interpreter at a bazaar in Kabul in December 2002.
His was the last trial scheduled to start before Obama takes office on January 20. Obama has said he will close the Guantanamo detention center and move the prisoners’ terrorism trials into the regular U.S. civilian or military courts.
Human rights groups have urged him to issue an executive order immediately upon taking office, halting the tribunals that have been widely condemned by rights activists, foreign leaders and military defense lawyers.
In the seven years since President George W. Bush first authorized the tribunals, military juries have convicted only two prisoners on terrorism charges and a third pleaded guilty in an agreement that limited his sentence to nine months.
A military judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley, indefinitely postponed Jawad’s trial on Wednesday to give prosecutors time to appeal his earlier decision to throw out much of the evidence.
Henley had ruled that Jawad’s confession to Afghan government authorities was obtained through death threats that constituted torture and that his subsequent confession to U.S. interrogators was fruit of that torture.
The judge ruled that neither could be admitted as evidence against Jawad, who was drugged and only 16 or 17 years old at the time of his arrest in Afghanistan. Jawad was turned over to U.S. forces and sent shortly afterward to Guantanamo.
A hearing is still scheduled at Guantanamo on Friday for a young Canadian captive, Omar Khadr, who is accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan in July 2002. His trial is scheduled to start on January 26, a date now in doubt because of the change in the U.S. administration.
No further hearings have been set for the most high-profile case among the 17 pending at Guantanamo, that of five al Qaeda suspects charged with orchestrating the September 11 attacks.
The five, including self-described mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, came to the Guantanamo courtroom on Monday ready to hand the Bush administration a major victory in its final days by confessing to the mass murders that prompted its war on terrorism.
What stopped them was confusion over whether the murky tribunal rules allowed the defendants to plead guilty to charges that could lead to their execution and whether their treatment at U.S. hands had left them sane enough to do it.
All five said they were tortured, though details have not been made public. A decision is still pending on whether two of them, Ramzi Binalshibh and Mustafa Ahmed al Hasawi, are mentally competent to act as their own attorneys and carry out their plans to confess.
“Each one of these individuals has some problems because of what we did to them,” said Army Maj. Jon Jackson, the military lawyer appointed to defend Hawsawi.
The defense lawyers said the confusion over whether the tribunal rules allow guilty pleas in death penalty cases illustrates why the trials should be moved into the regular courts where the rules have been long tested.
They said they were confident Obama would pull the plug on the Guantanamo tribunals, which are formally known as military commissions.
“What you saw was the death throes of the commissions,” said Michael Berrigan, deputy chief defense counsel for Guantanamo. “Everybody knows why — it’s not justice.”
Editing by Cynthia Osterman