U.S. military judges in Guantanamo acted quickly Wednesday morning to suspend two of the 21 terrorism trials now in progress, based on a request from the Obama administration. Judges in the other trials are expected to do the same.
One of the trials suspended Wednesday was the biggest of them all - the case against five men accused of involvement in the September 11th attacks on the United States in 2001. The moves came based on requests from military prosecutors, acting on orders from President Obama.
The military trials are suspended for 120 days, and Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman says he expects the Defense Department will soon receive further instructions from the new president.
"The president has clearly made his intentions well known, running up to taking his oath of office yesterday in terms of what his intentions are," he said. "And he has taken the first steps with respect to his direction to the secretary of defense to order a pause to military commissions proceedings. I would expect that the department will get additional guidance and direction in the near future."
Whitman says that additional direction could come within days, and he expects it to involve "a broad, comprehensive review."
Some reports say President Obama will order the Defense Department to come up with a plan to close the Guantanamo detention center and either release its 250 detainees or move some of them to the United States for trial. Whitman could not confirm that, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already ordered a fresh study of the issue, in anticipation of such an order. Secretary Gates, the only member of former-President Bush's cabinet asked to stay on in the new administration, has said he tried to close Guantanamo after he took office two years ago but was not able to do so under previous policies.
Human rights organizations welcomed the suspension of the military commissions. But the terrorism policy director for Amnesty International USA, Geneve Mantri, says the question now is what comes next.
"Amnesty International thinks this is a great first step," Mantri said. "It's a great move to basically suspend this process. But we're still waiting for the 'meat in the sandwich' to see what the administration is going to come back with in terms of what it's plan is, not only for closing Guantanamo and disposing of these individual cases, but also the wider framework in terms of its approach to international justice and counter-terrorism and terrorism issues."
Mantri says the military commissions are "fundamentally flawed and unfair" and he hopes the Obama Administration will develop a "more free and fair system." The Pentagon has consistently defended the military commissions, and Bryan Whitman did not retreat from that on Wednesday.
"There are any number of people and entities that have worked with respect to the military commissions, not just this department, the Justice Department, the Congress," he said. "That said, the president has given some clear indications that he wants to take a new approach, a different approach."
Whitman notes that some countries have said they might be more willing to cooperate with the Obama Administration than they were with the Bush administration in offering new homes to some of the Guantanamo detainees.
But experts say the issue of what to do with the rest has not gotten any easier. Some were tortured while in custody, and for some the evidence against them is secret. For both types of detainee, getting a conviction in a U.S. civilian or military court could be difficult, and even critics of Guantanamo agree that the most dangerous detainees should not be released. That leaves the difficult legal and ethical questions of how and where to hold them and put them on trial, and how to ensure that a court does not release dangerous terrorists.