GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Hours after taking office on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered military prosecutors in the Guantanamo war crimes tribunals to ask for a 120-day halt in all pending cases.
Military judges were expected to rule on the request on Wednesday at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an official involved in the trials said.
The request would halt proceedings in 21 pending cases, including the death penalty case against five Guantanamo prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 hijacked plane attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Prosecutors said in their written request that the halt was "in the interests of justice."
Obama has pledged to shut down the Guantanamo prison camp that was widely seen as a stain on the United States' human rights record and a symbol of detainee abuse and detention without charge under the administration of his predecessor, former President George W. Bush.
Human rights activists and military defense lawyers had urged him to halt the special tribunals that are formally known as military commissions and urged him to move the prosecutions into the regular U.S. courts for trial under long-established rules.
"In order to permit the newly inaugurated president and his administration time to review the military commission process, generally, and the cases currently pending before the military commissions, specifically, the secretary of defense has, by order of the president directed the chief prosecutor to seek continuances of 120 days in all pending case," prosecutor Clay Trivett said in the written request to the judges.
The request said freezing the trials until May 20 would give the new administration time to evaluate the cases and decide what forum best suits any future prosecution.
About 245 foreign captives are still held at the detention center that opened in January 2002. The Bush administration had said it planned to try 80 prisoners on war crimes charges, but only three cases have been completed.
Defense lawyers expected and supported a freeze of the tribunals, which have moved in fits and spurts amid numerous legal challenges. They had complained that the tribunals allowed hearsay evidence and coerced testimony and were subject of so much political interference that fairness was impossible.
Obama's order was widely anticipated. Jamil Dakwar, who is monitoring the tribunals for the American Civil Liberties Union, had said earlier Tuesday that waiting for the order was comparable to a death watch for a patient whose demise was certain.
"We're just waiting for the reading of the will," Dakwar said.
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