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US: Obama Calls for 120-Day Halt to Guantanamo Military Commissions

Judge Grants Prosecution Request to Suspend Khadr Hearings

Update: A military judge on Wednesday (January 21) granted the prosecution's request to halt proceedings against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged co-conspirators for 120 days.  

(Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, January 21, 2009) - President Barack Obama acted swiftly and expeditiously by calling for a halt to the unfair military commission proceedings at Guantanamo, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch said that the order, which Obama issued within hours of taking office, underscored the urgency of the decision to stop the commissions from holding further proceedings. The order directed military commission prosecutors to seek a 120-day suspension of all pending cases.

"President Obama knew better than to start his presidency with the spectacle of unfair and chaotic military commission proceedings," said Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program director at Human Rights Watch. "The 120-day halt should give the new administration a reasonable time to throw out those cases without merit and transfer the rest to federal court."

In a motion filed late on Tuesday night, January 20, in cases against 9/11 suspects and Omar Khadr, among others, prosecutors requested a 120-day suspension in the military commission proceedings "in the interests of justice." The motion states that it was filed at the direction of the president of the United States and the secretary of defense.

The motion also states that it was filed, "[i]n order to permit the newly inaugurated President and his Administration time to review the military commissions process, generally, and the cases currently pending before military commissions, specifically."

This morning, the military judge in the Khadr case granted the prosecution request for a halt. The motion was still pending in the 9/11 case.

While the military judges hearing the military commission cases could potentially deny these motions, it is unlikely that they would choose to prolong the proceedings in opposition to the clearly expressed wishes of the new commander-in-chief.

The prosecutors' motion explains that the order to request a halt in proceeding was made so that the administration could have sufficient time, "to evaluate the cases of detainees not approved for release or transfer to determine whether prosecution may be warranted for any offenses those detainees may have committed, and to determine which forum best suits any future prosecution."

Human Rights Watch said that the wording of the motion suggests that the new administration is assessing the possibility of discontinuing certain cases and of transferring other cases to a forum such as federal court. Depending on the facts in the case, either of these options is appropriate, Human Rights Watch said.

Prior to the issuance of the presidential order, pretrial hearings were held this week in the cases of the 9/11 suspects and Khadr, a Canadian national who was apprehended in Afghanistan at the age of 15 for his role in a firefight that resulted in the death of a US soldier. The January 19 hearing in the 9/11 case became entangled in complex legal issues involving the use of classified information documenting abusive government conduct.

"The confusion and uncertainty that we repeatedly witnessed at Guantanamo reflects the ad hoc nature of these military commission proceedings," Mariner said. "It would be a terrible mistake to try a case as important as the September 11 prosecution in such a crude and untested system."

Hearings were scheduled for Wednesday, January 21, in both the 9/11 and Khadr cases. In the Khadr case, which was scheduled to go to trial on January 26, the military judge indicated yesterday that the trial would be postponed.

Human Rights Watch observers are attending both proceedings.

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