Obama seeks suspension of Guantánamo trials

Barack Obama ordered prosecutors to seek a suspension on Wednesday of military trials at the Guantánamo Bay “war on terror” prison camp on in one of his first acts as new United States president.

Obama has vowed to close the prison on a naval base in Cuba, which has become a symbol of US excesses around the world.

Military judges were to rule on Wednesday on the move, which would affect the trials of five alleged plotters of the September 11 2001 attacks and the case of the last Westerner held at the camp, for allegedly killing a US soldier in Afghanistan.

“In the interests of justice, and at the direction of the president of the United States and the secretary of defence, the government respectfully requests the military commission grant a continuance of the proceedings,” said prosecution documents seen late on Tuesday.

Lawyer Clayton Trivett is to present the motion to two judges: Stephen Henley who is in charge of the case of five men charged with having helped organise the 9/11 attacks; and Patrick Parrish who is examining the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian arrested when he was 15 in Afghanistan accused of killing a soldier.

Obama issued the order regarding the suspension of cases even before formally ordering the prison camp shut down and with pre-trial procedures already well under way.

The suspensions would “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”, Trivett’s document said, adding that the halt should take effect until May 20.

“The secretary of defence issued his order to the chief prosecutor in order to provide the administration sufficient time to conduct a review of detainees currently held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” it said.

The time should be used “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”.

The special military tribunals were established in 2006 by president George Bush’s administration to try terror suspects under separate rules from regular civilian or military courts.

Twenty-one people have been charged and 14 out of an estimated 245 remaining prisoners have appeared before judges, the Pentagon said.

Obama’s attorney general designate Eric Holder said this month that the Obama team was already taking steps to prepare to close the prison. The military commissions did not provide enough legal protections to the defendants, he added, arguing they could be tried in regular US courts.

Established in early 2002 following the US-led offensive in Afghanistan, the detention centre was designed to hold suspected terrorists. The Bush administration claimed they were “enemy combatants” of a non-state organisation and so not covered by the Geneva Conventions for treatment of prisoners of war.

Over the years, about 800 detainees have gone through Guantánamo, including 520 transferred to other countries to be held or released.
Sixty have been cleared for release or transfer, but their home countries have been reluctant to take them.

Self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Walid bin Attash, Mustapha al-Hawsawi and Ramzi Binalshibh appeared at hearings this week amid tight security.

Final motions have also begun for Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen arrested in Afghanistan when he was 15 years old for allegedly killing a US soldier with a hand grenade.

Khadr’s defence has focused on the interrogations their client underwent in Afghanistan and later at Guantánamo, while predicting that the trial set to begin on January 26 would never take place.

Bold, swift action
Obama has pledged bold and swift action to deal with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He has also asked Americans for patience in grappling with challenges both foreign and domestic that will take time to resolve.

With financial markets reeling and job losses mounting, Obama will meet with his economic advisers on Wednesday, who are working with the Democratic-led Congress on an $825-billion fiscal stimulus package.

He also is seeking fresh approaches to repair the battered financial system and is mulling a host of ideas, including the creation of a government-run bank that would buy up toxic assets from ailing US banks.

The aim is to rekindle the flow of the credit to the economy so businesses and consumers can get access to loans.

Iraq and Afghanistan will dominate Obama’s foreign policy agenda, but he has also said he will take an active role to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He may move quickly to name a Middle East envoy and is strongly considering George Mitchell, a former US senator and veteran international troubleshooter, for the job.

In addition to the economic meeting, Obama will also sit down with top military officials to discuss Iraq and Afghanistan.

He has said he favours a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and US officials said that in his meeting with military leaders, he would discuss the possibility of accelerating their departure.

Obama also will discuss plans to bolster troops in Afghanistan as he meets with a Pentagon delegation led by Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

General David Petraeus, the former Iraq commander credited with pulling the country from the brink of civil war, was to attend Wednesday’s meeting after flying back from Afghanistan.

A Senate vote is expected on Wednesday on Obama’s nomination of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

But he will begin his new administration without a Treasury secretary. His nominee for the job, Tim Geithner, will face questions from a Senate panel about his past failure to pay some taxes.

Geithner has said the tax problem stemmed from an error and several senators have said they thought the issue would not prevent his confirmation.

Obama has found a receptive audience on Capitol Hill for his call for aggressive action to help the economy and hopes to garner bipartisan support for the massive stimulus package.

But Republicans have raised questions about the package, including how quickly the money will be spent and whether certain projects will actually kick-start the economy, which has been in a recession for over a year.

Obama is pressing for passage of the package by mid-February. - Reuters, AFP

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