GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – A military defense lawyer says prosecutors are seeking to suspend all war crimes trials until they get more guidance from President Obama's administration after a military judge adjourned the Guantanamo Bay war crimes court on Tuesday, leaving open the possibility that the hearings might not resume.
The judge, Army Col. Patrick Parrish, dismissed the court until Wednesday "unless otherwise ordered," a nod to the possibility that the Obama administration might suspend the military trials as it wrestles with how to proceed with its plan to close the prison that now holds about 245 men on suspicion of links to terrorism, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bill Kuebler says the prosecution has proposed an indefinite continuance. The proposal would pause the tribunals in a way that would allow them to be easily restarted again in the future.
A Pentagon official declined comment.
Kuebler says defense lawyers oppose the proposal. They want the charges withdrawn without prejudice, meaning they could be refiled later under a different legal system.
Obama has said he will close Guantanamo and many expect he will suspend the widely criticized war-crimes trials created by former President George W. Bush and Congress. Obama's nominee for attorney general has said the so-called military commissions lack sufficient legal protections for defendants and that they could be tried in the United States.
Despite the doubts about its future, military judges decided to press on with this week's session, which brought dozens of lawyers, witnesses and officials to the U.S. base in Cuba for several days of pretrial hearings in the case of Canadian Omar Khadr, who is accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan, and the five men charged with orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks.
Before the judge could adjourn the court so people could watch the inauguration, an FBI agent defended the questioning of detainee Omar Khadr, who is accused of killing an American soldier.
Prosecutors called FBI agent Robert Fuller to help counter a defense effort to exclude statements by Khadr, a Toronto native who was 15 when he was captured in Afghanistan and is now 22.
The defense says incriminating statements by Khadr, the son of an Al Qaeda operative who was killed by Pakistani forces in 2003, were obtained through coercion and torture, but Fuller and other prosecution witnesses say the defendant willingly spoke to interrogators without pressure.
Fuller testified that he never saw Khadr subjected to sleep deprivation or shackled in "stress positions," and that the defendant never complained to him about being kept in isolation or threatened.
"We treated him no differently than we would anybody back in the states," Fuller said. "We treated him with respect just like we would anyone else."
The Canadian's trial had been scheduled to start Jan. 26, but Parrish said a new date would have to be set because pretrial hearings are taking longer than expected. Khadr's Pentagon-appointed lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, said he doubts there will be a trial in Guantanamo.
"I'm hopeful that President Obama is going to switch this process off in the next couple of days," said Kuebler, who argues that Khadr is innocent and should be given special consideration because he was a juvenile when captured.
On Monday, several relatives of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks said they oppose any plans to close Guantanamo and halt the war crimes trials. The family members, brought to the base by the U.S. military to observe proceedings, spoke to reporters after two alleged terrorists declared they were proud of their roles in the plot.
"Though the wheels are grinding, they are turning here and this place must remain open and justice must be served," Andrew Arias, whose brother, Adam, was killed in the attacks, said.
"If not here, where?" said Arias, of South River, New Jersey. "Keep it open, let's get the job done."