Barack Obama calls halt to Guantánamo trials


January 21, 2009
by Philippe Naughton

Barack Obama has wasted no time in getting down to the business of government,
asking prosecutors to halt controversial military trials at Guantánamo Bay within
hours of his inauguration.

The request was issued via the Department of Defence even as President Obama
and his wife Michelle waltzed their way through a series of glitzy inaugural

Mr Obama pledged during his campaign to close the prison camp on Cuba set up
in 2001 to hold detainees from the ‘War on Terror’. The camp’s legality has
always been questioned, and former inmates and human rights experts said the
harsh interrogation techniques deployed inside it amounted to torture.

Last night’s request was for a 120-day stay in the trials of five alleged 9/11
plotters – including the self-proclaimed ‘mastermind’ behind America’s worst
terror attack – and of a Canadian accused of killing a US soldier in Afghanistan.
Mr Obama had been expected to issue an executive order as early as today for
the full closure of the camp, but accepts that it might take months to rehouse
some 250 inmates still held there.

Clive Stafford Smith, the British human rights lawyer who has represented Guantánamo
Bay suspects, welcomed the announcement and said that he thought Mr Obama could
close the camp within his first 100 days in office.

“It’s great isn’t it? It isn’t much like the original
executive order that President Bush issued,” he said. “There is
no doubt it will stop the practices at Guantánamo. After all, Obama is now the

The Guantánamo request was not the only measure taken by the new Obama Administration
in its first hours of office. In a memorandum signed by Rahm Emanuel, the new
White House chief of staff, the order went out to put the brakes on all pending
regulations that the Bush regime tried to push through in its last days.

Later today, Mr Obama will get down to the bigger task of hauling America out
of its "winter of hardship" with his first meetings at the Oval Office.

He will spend the first part of his first full day as president seeking divine
blessing for his presidency at a traditional prayer service at Washington’s
National Cathedral. Then he is expected to call in his top economic officers
and advisers to to start the task of repairing the ruptured US economy and shepherd
a huge $825 billion stimulus package through Congress.

In a sign of the tough task ahead, the Dow Jones Industrials Average plummeted
four percent on Mr Obama’s first day in office as investors were spooked
by deep problems in the banking industry.

Mr Obama was also expected to meet his top military leaders to fulfill a campaign
promise — telling the generals to formulate a plan to get US troops out of
Iraq, and reorienting military efforts towards the war in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, Mr Obama claimed his place in history as the first black president
of a nation stained by the legacies of slavery and racial segregation, and told
Americans they have to pull together to pick their way out of raging storms.

“We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,”
the 47-year-old said in a sombre speech which never reached the oratorical heights
expected but still had many in a two-million strong crowd in tears.

"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin
again the work of remaking America."

RELATED from Monday:

Guantánamo court convenes amid chaos, confusion
Mon Jan 19, 2009

By Jane Sutton

Guantánamo BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba, Jan 19 (Reuters) – The Guantánamo war
crimes court convened in a chaotic session on Monday with accused Sept. 11 plotters
disrupting the proceedings while U.S. government lawyers debated whether an
administrative hiccup had left them facing any charges at all.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 hijacked
plane plot, tried unsuccessfully to banish all Americans from his defense table
in the courtroom at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and complained
when the judge asked him to limit his comments.

"This is terrorism, not court. You don’t give us opportunity to talk,"
Mohammed told the judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley.

Mohammed complained when a prosecutor characterized the charges against him
and four co-defendants as the "murder" of nearly 3,000 innocent men,
women and children.

But Mohammed, who has repeatedly acknowledged his guilt on charges that could
lead to his execution, later told the court, "We don’t care about the capital
punishment … we are doing jihad for the cause of God."

Defendant Ramzi Binalshibh, whose mental competency to act as his own attorney
is the subject of an ongoing challenge, told the court, "We did what we
did and we are proud of this. We are proud of 9-11."

Problems with the Arabic-English interpretation and outbursts from the defendants
punctuated what is widely expected to be the last week of hearings in the special
Guantánamo tribunals established by the Bush administration to try non-U.S.
captives on terrorism charges.


President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office on Tuesday, has said he will
close the prison camp at Guantánamo and thinks the trials should be moved into
the regular U.S. courts. Members of his transition team have hinted that Obama
might issue an order freezing the trials shortly after he becomes commander
in chief of the U.S. military.

But the immediate question facing the Guantánamo judges was whether the defendants
still faced any charges.

The Bush administration appointee overseeing the tribunals, Susan Crawford,
quietly dropped charges in all the pending cases in December and refiled them
in early January.

It was a technical procedure aimed at updating jury pools that were assigned
to the cases years ago.

Defense lawyers argued that the move had the effect of nullifying all the previous
rulings in the ongoing cases, restarting the trial clock and requiring that
the defendants be served with new copies of the charges and arraigned again.

They noted Crawford was a retired chief judge of the court of appeals for the
U.S. armed forces who should have been well aware of the military court rules
and that she had signed a letter specifically saying the charges had been "withdrawn"
and refiled.

Henley said the documents had been "inartfully expressed" and "negligently
executed." But he said a subsequent affidavit from Crawford made it clear
that she had intended only to replace jurors who had retired or moved on to
new assignments.

He ruled that the charges stood and the hearings could continue.

Mohammed, Binalshibh and three others — Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, Walid bin
Attash and Mohammed’s nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali — face 2,973 counts of murder,
one for each person killed when al Qaeda militants crashed hijacked airliners
into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

(Editing by Jim Loney and Sandra Maler)


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