GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — The Guantanamo Bay war crimes court came to an abrupt halt Wednesday as military judges granted President Barack Obama's request to suspend proceedings while he reviews his predecessor's strategy for prosecuting terrorists.
The judges quickly agreed to a 120-day suspension of the cases of a Canadian accused of killing an American soldier in Afghanistan and five men charged in the Sept. 11 attacks. Similar orders are expected in other pending cases pending before the Guantanamo military commissions.
Judge Stephen Henley, an Army colonel presiding over the Sept. 11 trial, accepted the prosecution argument that it would be in the "interests of justice" to give the new administration time to review the commission process and decide what to do next, a decision tied closely to Obama's pledge to close the detention center.
The five charged in the Sept. 11 attacks had said they wanted to plead guilty to charges that carry potential death sentences and their alleged ringleader, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, told the court he opposes the delay.
"We should continue so we don't go backward, we go forward," said Mohammed, who shrugged off the prospect of a death sentence at a pretrial hearing at the base earlier in the week.
Another judge agreed to a suspension in the case of Canadian Omar Khadr with a one-sentence order.
Obama's order to seek a suspension of the proceedings came just hours after his inauguration.
Prosecutor Clay Trivett said all pending cases should be suspended because the new administration's review of the military commissions system may result in significant changes that could have legal consequences for the defendants.
In Washington, the administration circulated a draft executive order that calls for closing the detention center within a year and reviewing the cases of all the nearly 245 still held. The government would release some, transfer others and put the rest on trial under terms still to be determined. It was not known when Obama intended to issue the order.
The suspension of the war crimes trials "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 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," 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."
Khadr has received little sympathy in Canada, where his family has been called the "first family of terrorism." His father was an alleged al-Qaida militant and financier who was slain by Pakistani forces in 2003, and a brother, Abdullah Khadr, is being held in Canada on a U.S. extradition warrant, accused of supplying weapons to al-Qaida.
Reached in Toronto, Omar Khadr's older sister expressed mixed feelings at the news.
"I'm glad my brother is not going to trial, but I really would have preferred he was coming home, and he's not," Zaynab Khadr said.
War crimes charges are pending against 21 men being held at Guantanamo. 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 and has faced repeated challenges.
Relatives of Sept. 11 victims, who were at the base this week to observe pretrial hearings, and listened as one of the Sept. 11 defendants said he was "proud" of the attacks, told reporters they oppose halting 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 Arias, was killed at the World Trade Center.
Jim Riches of Brooklyn, N.Y., whose 29-year-old firefighter son, Jimmy, was killed in the attacks, said he would support another system, but doesn't want to wait much longer. "We'll go along with whatever process it is, but let's get it done. It shouldn't take another eight years," he said.