Obama seeks halt in Guantanamo cases

By Peter Finn
Washington Post / January 21, 2009
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GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - In one of its first actions, the Obama administration instructed military prosecutors late last night to seek a 120-day halt of legal proceedings involving detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, a clear break with the approach of the outgoing Bush administration.

The instruction came in a motion filed with a military court handling the case of five defendants accused of organizing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The motion called for "a continuance of the proceedings" until May 20 so that "the newly inaugurated president and his administration (can) review the military commissions process, generally, and the cases currently pending before military commissions, specifically."

The same motion was filed in another case scheduled to resume today, involving a Canadian detainee, and will be filed in all other pending matters.

Such a request may not be automatically granted by military judges, and not all defense attorneys may agree to such a suspension. But the move is a first step toward closing a detention facility and system of military trials that became a worldwide symbol of the Bush administration's war on terror and its unyielding attitude to foreign and domestic critics.

The legal maneuver appears designed to provide the Obama administration time to refashion the prosecution system and potentially treat detainees as criminal defendants in federal court or to have them face war-crime charges in military courts-martial. It is also possible that the administration could overhaul and relocate the military commissions before resuming trials.

The motion prompted a clear sense of deflation among some of the military officials here who had tried to make a success of a system, despite charges that the military tribunals were a legal netherworld stained by torture and a lack of due process. Military prosecutors and other commission officials here were told not to speak to the press, according to a Pentagon official.

But the action was cheered by some.

"We would rather have seen the charges withdrawn, but it's a good indication that military commissions will not go forward," said Stacy Sullivan, a counterterrorism adviser for Human Rights Watch.

Pre-trial hearings for the 9/11 defendants were scheduled to resume today.

Another case, involving Omar Khadr, a Canadian accused of killing a US soldier in Afghanistan when he was 15, was also about to begin.

In legislative action yesterday, the Senate yesterday swiftly approved six members of President Barack Obama's Cabinet, but put off for a day the vote on his choice for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

The Senate confirmed the six with a single voice vote: Steven Chu as energy secretary; Arne Duncan as education secretary; Janet Napolitano as homeland security secretary; Eric Shinseki as veterans affairs secretary; Ken Salazar as interior secretary; and Tom Vilsack, as agriculture secretary.

But Democrats' hopes to add Clinton to that list were sidetracked when one senator, Republican John Cornyn of Texas, objected to the unanimous vote. Cornyn said he still had concerns about foreign donations to the foundation headed by former president Bill Clinton.

Senate leaders agreed to have a roll-call vote on Clinton today.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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