Hours after taking office, President Barack Obama requested that all pending military hearings at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba be suspended.
Obama wants a complete review of the military commissions used to try the detainees at the remote prison camp. The move is seen as the first step in closing Guantanamo.
From the start, the military commissions — designed solely for use in Guantanamo courtrooms — were widely criticized as inherently unfair to the detainees: The trials were mired in delays and plagued by legal challenges.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Obama pledged to close the detention camp and signaled that he was not happy with the commissions.
"I think, clearly, the new administration's legal review of military commissions began long before yesterday's inauguration," says Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs.
He says it is important that Obama made the decision to suspend the commissions quickly, because the longer the procedures were allowed to continue, the more difficult it would be for him to pull them back later.
Obama's decision immediately froze Tuesday's trial of a Canadian-born detainee, as well as the trial Wednesday of five men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks. The five, who were facing the death penalty, protested the delay in their case. Earlier, they had said they wanted to be "martyrs."
The new president's decision effectively brings all 21 pending cases at Guantanamo to a halt until at least May 20, while the new administration studies the process.
Eugene Fidell, the president of the National Institute of Military Justice, says it's unlikely the commissions will be reconstituted.
"Obviously, the military commissions have been severely discredited everywhere — in our legal system, in the court of public opinion and around the world. So I find it hard to imagine that the Obama administration would exert itself to preserve their viability," Fidell says.
According to news agencies, the administration on Wednesday circulated a draft executive order that would close Guantanamo within a year. The detention camp currently holds roughly 245 detainees. People involved with the Obama transition team say the order would also include repatriating some of the detainees — and transferring others into the United States. Ireland and Switzerland signaled on Wednesday that they may be willing to take some of the prisoners.
Geneve Mantri with Amnesty International says these moves by the Obama administration are positive steps.
"What we're really looking forward to seeing is what the administration puts in its place — what human rights safeguard it has, whether it has the safeguards we'd like to see in any legal system, and all the things that most people have criticized this process as lacking," Mantri says.
The Obama administration will have to decide what legal system should be used to prosecute the detainees and where they will be detained, says Fidell.
"The Bush administration left the Obama administration with a mare's nest of legal and practical problems. And it's going to take some time, and the best minds that the legal profession has, to sort those problems out," he says.
The new administration will also have to decide what to do with detainees whom the government does not have enough evidence to try — but whom U.S. intelligence agencies say are too dangerous to release. Waxman, the former detainee affairs official, says Obama will have to strike the right balance.
"In trying to navigate these policy dilemmas, the new president needs to balance on the one hand security, with on the other hand, not just civil liberties, but also legitimacy," he says.
Waxman says it's more important now to move competently, rather than quickly, in deciding what to do with Guantanamo.