FORT MEADE, Md. (Reuters) - The U.S. Defense Department said on Friday it had rescinded an order relocating military judges to Guantanamo Bay that was intended to speed up trials of al Qaeda suspects but drew allegations of Pentagon meddling in the judicial process.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work’s about-face on his Jan. 7 order clears a hurdle for the slow-running trials at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
The judge presiding over the trial of five suspects in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States halted proceedings on Wednesday until the order was lifted. He cited “unlawful command influence,” or Pentagon meddling in the judicial process.
Work reversed course late on Thursday in a one-paragraph order. In a statement, Work’s office said he “believes it is important to preserve the independence of the Military Commission (court) in appearance, as well as in fact.”
Work’s order had stripped three military judges of other duties and ordered them to move to Guantanamo Bay indefinitely to speed up the proceedings.
Defense lawyers in capital cases involving the 9/11 attacks and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole had contended that moving the judges to the remote base was an attempt to rush justice.
Judge Air Force Colonel Vance Spath, who is overseeing the Cole trial, had scheduled testimony on Friday by the senior military lawyers, or judge advocates general, for the Army, Navy and Air Force about Work’s order.
Work’s directive was crafted by retired Marine Corps Major General Vaughn Ary, the overseer of the war court at Guantanamo Bay.
Ary defended his recommendation on Wednesday and said he had not consulted with the judge advocates general. [ID:nL1N0VZ39L] Prosecutors had backed Work’s order.
Spath went ahead with arguments over a defense motion that because of Work’s order charges should be dropped against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi charged with orchestrating the Cole bombing. The attack killed 17 sailors.
Defense lawyers in the 9/11 case have asked that charges be dismissed as well.
Asked to rebut the allegation of unlawful influence, prosecutor Navy Lieutenant Paul Morris argued that Ary had acted in good faith and in any case Work had withdrawn his order.
Spath said the appearance of impartiality was crucial and he hoped to have a ruling on Monday.
The hearing was monitored via closed-circuit television at Fort Meade, outside Washington.
Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Lisa Lambert, Bernard Orr and Eric Beech