GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — President Obama's request to suspend all war crimes trials at Guantanamo was promptly accepted by military judges Wednesday in what may be the beginning of the end for the Bush administration's system of trying alleged terrorists.
The judges agreed to the 120-day halt the cases of five men charged in the Sept. 11 attacks and a Canadian accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan. Similar orders are expected in other pending cases before the Guantanamo military commission.
The five men charged in the Sept. 11 attacks had said they wanted to plead guilty to charges that carry the potential death sentences they say could make them martyrs. The alleged ringleader, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, told the court he opposes the delay.
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"We should continue so we don't go backward, we go forward," Mohammed said.
Earlier, another judge agreed to a suspension in the case of Canadian Omar Khadr.
The prosecution submitted the motions to suspend the proceedings just hours after Obama's inauguration at the direction of the president and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Prosecutor Clay Trivett said all pending cases should be suspended because a review of the military commissions system may result in significant changes. Obama has said he will close Guantanamo and many expect he will scrap the special war crimes court and direct that cases be prosecuted in the U.S.
The 120-day suspension "has the practical effect of stopping the process, probably forever," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, Khadr's defense lawyer.
Khadr, a Toronto native, faces charges that include supporting terrorism and murder for allegedly killing U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer of Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a grenade during a 2002 battle in Afghanistan when he was 15.
Khadr, the son of an alleged al-Qaida militant who was slain by Pakistani forces in 2003, faces up to life in prison if convicted by the military commission. His lawyer says he should now be prosecuted, if at all, in a civilian court, though he would prefer to be repatriated to Canada.
"He is anxious. He doesn't know what's going to happen, none of us knows what's going to happen," Kuebler said after discussing the delay with the 22-year-old prisoner. "But we are all hopeful and somewhat optimistic that this ruling now creates a space for the two governments to do something constructive to solve this case."
War crimes charges are pending against 21 men being held at Guantanamo, including the five charged with murder and other crimes in the Sept. 11 case. Before Obama became president, the U.S. had said it planned to try dozens of detainees in a system created by former President George W. Bush and Congress in 2006.
Relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, who were at the base this week to observe pretrial hearings, told reporters they oppose any halt to the trials.
"The safest place to have these trials is Guantanamo Bay. If they were to move to the homeland it would endanger all of us," said Lorraine Arias Believeau of Barnegat, New Jersey, whose brother, Adam, was killed in the attacks.
But human rights groups and others welcomed the development.
"It is a major positive step in the right direction," said Jamil Dakwar, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who was observing pretrial hearings at Guantanamo this week.
The decision was also welcomed by the European Union, which repeatedly criticized the Bush administration over alleged human rights abuses at Guantanamo as well as for the military commissions.
The European Commission "has been very pleased that one of the first actions of Mr. Obama has been to turn the page on this sad episode of Guantanamo," said Michele Cercone, spokesman for the EU Justice and Home Affairs Commission.