MIAMI (Reuters) - The Guantanamo war crimes trials remain officially frozen while U.S. President Barack Obama weighs how to proceed with the terrorism prosecutions but several of the cases are still very much in motion.
The chief judge in the Guantanamo court, Army Col. Stephen Henley, ordered the public release on Tuesday of a document in which five defendants boastfully repeated their claims of guilt in plotting the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Military lawyers are still filing legal documents in other cases in anticipation that the Guantanamo trials will resume as soon as Obama’s freeze order expires on May 20.
Another judge has already scheduled pretrial hearings at Guantanamo for the week of July 6 in the case against Tanzanian Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, accused of supplying equipment and support for the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania.
After taking office in January, Obama ordered a four-month freeze on proceedings while his administration decides whether it will move the Guantanamo prosecutions into the regular U.S. civilian or military courts or keep the widely criticized special tribunals established by the Bush administration.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Commander J.D. Gordon, said the filings, document releases and scheduling did not violate Obama’s order, which only prohibited bringing new charges or holding war court sessions at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“We are in compliance with the president’s executive orders,” Gordon said on Tuesday.
Obama has ordered the detention camp at Guantanamo shut by January 2010 as part of an attempt to restore America’s human rights image and is still weighing what to do with the 241 remaining captives, many held without trial for seven years.
The Pentagon did not explain why it was moving forward with the steps. Critics accuse the military of trying to keep the momentum going so it will be harder to stop the Guantanamo process.
The military is divided on the issue. Some of the officers who support the Guantanamo tribunals have lobbied the Obama administration to keep the proceedings rather than bring any Guantanamo defendants to the United States for trial in a court where they would enjoy more legal rights.
The document released on Tuesday from the five accused September 11 plotters was immediately seized on by Guantanamo supporters as proof the offshore prison needed to stay open. The document was billed as the five suspects’ response to the U.S. military’s accusations against them.
In it, self-described September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants boasted that they were “terrorists to the bone” and said they viewed the mass murder charges against them as “a badge of honor.”
They said the United States had committed war crimes by killing civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq and indirectly in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon through its military and economic support of Israel.
“Did you forget about your nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” the accused al Qaeda operatives asked, adding that they were committed to “Killing you and fighting you and destroying you.”
The five, who would face execution if convicted, had made similar boasts and tried to plead guilty during several pretrial hearings at Guantanamo. But their pleas were delayed until the judge decides whether two of them are sane enough to act as their own attorneys, and until he determines whether the murky rules allow guilty pleas in death penalty cases.
Military lawyers assigned to defend the accused said they had not seen the document before it was publicly released and questioned whether all five defendants had really written it.
“It is highly irregular and prejudicial for the (judge) to accept a statement from represented accused, let alone immediately order its public release before counsel were even served a copy of it or put on notice of its filing,” said Navy Lieutenant Richard Federico, one of the lawyers representing defendant Ramzi Binalshibh.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which has long opposed the Guantanamo tribunals, said the release of the documents “raises the suspicion that political motivations are at play” especially since the Guantanamo judges have often refused to even release documents read in public court sessions.
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Cynthia Osterman