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BREAKING NEWS: Judge Suspends 5 Detainee Trials

The Washington Post is reporting:

A U.S. military judge Wednesday suspended the trial of five detainees accused of involvement in plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, acceding to a request from military prosecutors in accordance with a directive from the new Obama administration late Tuesday.

The suspension halts until late May the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the avowed mastermind of the Sept. 11 plot, and four other accused al-Qaeda members, even though Mohammed and three of the four objected to the delay.

Mohammed told the judge that if the proceeding went forward and all outstanding issues were resolved, including the mental competency of two of the defendants, then all five would be ready to confess to the charges together. The judge considered the government’s suspension request for an hour, then issued an order accepting it.

The development came after the administration of newly inaugurated President Obama, in one of its first actions, instructed military prosecutors late Tuesday to seek a 120-day suspension of legal proceedings involving detainees at the Guantanamo naval base — a clear break with the approach of the Bush administration, whose term ended at noon Tuesday.

Army Col. Patrick Parrish promptly put one of the cases on hold Wednesday morning. Parrish is overseeing the case involving Omar Khadr, a Canadian accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan when he was 15. Khadr’s trial was about to begin, but the defense did not object to a delay until May 20, and Parrish issued the necessary order.

Pretrial hearings for five 9/11 defendants, including Mohammed, were scheduled to resume Wednesday, with three of the five representing themselves.

The judge in the case ordered the government’s motion to suspend the proceedings translated into Arabic so that Mohammed and the two other defendants representing themselves would be prepared to argue.

In a December hearing, Mohammed and the others appeared ready to confess but changed their minds when they learned they could not act together until the competency issue was resolved.

“I think we should continue so we don’t go backward, we go forward,” Mohammed said.

An attorney for one of the defendants, Ramzi Binalshibh, who did not speak, said she had no objection to the suspension but would like to use the 120-day delay to resolve motions before the court, including whether her client is competent to represent himself.

The government, however, said the stay should apply to “all matters before the court” and that it was Obama’s prerogative as commander in chief to ask for a delay so he could study the system of military commissions and determine how to go forward with prosecutions.

This is very good news indeed.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.