Drama in Guantanamo: Will Obama Halt War Court Sessions?

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McClatchy Newspapers

Drama in Guantanamo: Will Obama Halt War Court Sessions?

by
Carol Rosenberg

A U.S. flag flies above a razorwire-topped fence at the 'Camp Six' detention facility at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in this December 10, 2008 file photo. (Mandel Ngan/Pool/Reuters)

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- In a surprise
move Friday, reflecting uncertainty in the future of President Bush's
war court, the Pentagon prosecutor sought -- and lost -- a late-night
bid to delay next week's terror hearings that straddle the inauguration
of Barack Obama.

''Both motions were denied. It's full-speed ahead,'' said Air Force Lt. Col. Ann Knabe, spokeswoman for military commissions.

Had
the judges granted the request, the Defense Department would have had
to ground a special flight of war crimes court staff, including
lawyers, judges and clerks, plus dozens of reporters and victims of the
Sept. 11, attacks that was slated to arrive here Saturday.

''The
government cannot represent with confidence that there will not be an
interruption in all commission proceedings,'' Army Col. Lawrence Morris
wrote Judge Stephen Henley, an Army colonel presiding in the war crimes
prosecution of five men accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11, 2001
attacks.

Morris also said in his 9 p.m submission,
obtained by The Miami Herald, that the government had ''certain
discovery issues'' as well as unavailable witnesses that would likely
delay a full hearing on whether 9/11 accused Ramzi bin al Shibh was
mentally competent to stand trial.

Henley swiftly
rejected the request, and the hearing was still on as of late Friday
for Monday, Martin Luther King Day, in the maximum security courtroom
at a crude compound here called Camp Justice.

The Army
prosecutor had likewise sought -- and was denied -- a delay from Judge
Patrick Parrish, an Army colonel, in thepre-trial hearings starting
Monday for Canadian captive Omar Khadr, captured at 15 and accused of
the July 2002 grenade killing of a U.S. soldier. Khadr's trial is
scheduled for Jan. 26.

One issue is whether, and when,
the new Obama administration might suspend the special post 9/11 war
court proceedings. During his campaign, the president-elect pledged to
empty the prison camps here of the last 250 foreign captives.

The
Chief Defense Counsel, Air Force Col. Peter Masciola, had earlier
Friday sought dismissal of all charges against all 21 war crimes
defendants -- six of whom face military execution, if convicted.

Masciola
cited both the looming change of administration, and likelihood that
the Obama White House would revise the controversial military
commissions as well as a series of pending motions by war court accused
that they had been tortured in U.S. custody.

He also
noted that the hearing was scheduled to take place on Martin Luther
King Day and said dismissal of charges was ``the legally and morally
correct course.''

''The perception of pervasive torture
now saddles the incoming Administration and its efforts to set these
proceedings on a just course,'' Masciola wrote a former military
appeals judge, Susan J. Crawford, known as the Convening Authority for
Military Commissions.

Knabe said Crawford was considering the defense counsel's letter.

A
day earlier, attorney general nominee Eric Holder told a Senate
confirmation hearing that the Obama administration would review war
court prosecutions in search of a new approach.

Obama
prefers traditional criminal trials and courts martial, and Holder said
that, were the new government to use commissions, they would have to be
``substantially revamped to provide the due process rights that I think
are consistent with who we are as Americans.''

Morris had different reasons for seeking delay, not dismissal.

''The
Prosecution believes that the interests of justice would be served by
taking this action and that they outweigh the best interests of both
the public and the accused in a hearing commencing on 19 January,'' he
wrote.

 

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