GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Hours after taking office, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered military prosecutors in the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals to ask for a 120-day halt in all pending cases and a judge granted the request on Wednesday in the case against a young Canadian.
When defense lawyers did not oppose the move, a judge froze the proceedings against Canadian Omar Khadr, who was captured at age 15 and is accused of murdering a U.S. soldier with a grenade during a firefight in Afghanistan.
Another judge was expected to rule as early as Wednesday in the death penalty case against five prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 hijacked plane attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Obama’s order to the prosecutors was issued several hours after his swearing-in on Tuesday and if all the continuances are granted it would halt proceedings against 21 prisoners.
Prosecutors said it was “in the interests of justice” to freeze the trials until about May 20 to give the new administration time to evaluate the cases and decide what forum best suits any future prosecution.
Obama has pledged to shut down the Guantanamo prison camp that was widely seen as a stain on the United States’ human rights record and a symbol of detainee abuse and detention without charge under the administration of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Human rights activists and military defense lawyers had urged him to halt the special tribunals that are formally known as military commissions and urged him to move the prosecutions into the regular U.S. courts for trial under long-established rules.
“In order to permit the newly inaugurated president and his administration time to review the military commission process, generally, and the cases currently pending before the military commissions, specifically, the secretary of defense has, by order of the president directed the chief prosecutor to seek continuances of 120 days in all pending case,” prosecutor Clay Trivett said in the written request to the judges.
About 245 foreign captives are still held at the detention center that opened in January 2002. The Bush administration had said it planned to try 80 prisoners on war crimes charges, but only three cases have been completed.
Defense lawyers expected and supported a freeze of the tribunals, which have moved in fits and spurts amid numerous legal challenges. They had complained that the tribunals allowed hearsay evidence and coerced testimony and were subject of so much political interference that fairness was impossible.
Editing by Eric Beech