President Obama took a baby step toward closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center as one of his first actions in office. He asked judges to suspend the controversial Gitmo war crimes trials for 120 days. The administration explained that it wants a chance to "review the military commissions process, generally, and the cases currently pending before military commissions, specifically."
Rather than opting for one of the more powerful tools now at Obama’s disposal, like an executive order, the president chose court motions filed in the case of five Sept. 11 suspects, and 16 other detainees due in court, to convey the request, according to a Miami Herald report.
The commissions have been discredited by a series of snags, such as the resignations or refusal to prosecute by six government appointed prosecutors and a reluctance to try tortured prisoners because their confessions are tainted.
The new president’s campaign Web site promised to "reject the Military Commissions Act, which allowed the U.S. to circumvent Geneva Conventions in the handling of the detainees." If elected, he would "develop a fair and thorough process" to mete out justice to prisoners of war and sift out those detained accidentally, the document says.
But the 120-day review period is, if anything, open-ended.
Similar motions to hold off on prosecutions are expected in all the 21 pending detainee cases, but there’s nothing stopping the administration from going back to military commissions when the layaway period ends May 20.
On the other hand, the administration could decide to send the prisoners to federal courts or military courts-martial, or relocate the commissions to another location before the expiration date.
Either way, the gesture doesn’t yet assuage the concern of Guantanamo’s opponents.
"This is a step in the right direction, although we still think that the unconditional withdrawal of all charges and shutting down this tainted system is warranted." Jamil Dakwar, director of the human rights program at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Post. "The president’s order leaves open the option of this discredited system remaining in existence."
Sen. Obama and presidential candidate Obama may have been sympathetic to that view. In a floor speech reacting to the Military Commissions Act of 2006, he told the Senate, "That is not how we should be doing business in the U.S. Senate, and that's not how we should be prosecuting this war on terrorism. When we're sloppy and cut corners, we are undermining those very virtues of America that will lead us to success in winning this war."
Whether that means Obama will end the war crimes trials or simply rejigger them is an open question.