Drama in Guantanamo: Will Obama halt war court sessions?

Miami HeraldJanuary 17, 2009 

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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