Pentagon orders Guantánamo judges to stay there to pick up pace

The Pentagon is requiring military judges to stay on the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in an effort to speed trials, including a long-delayed one for the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A regulation signed yesterday by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work requires judges assigned to military tribunals to give such cases their highest priority and remain at Guantánamo for the duration of the assignment.

Until now, judges assigned to the trials, called commissions, have juggled those cases with other work and commuted to Guantánamo part time. The move reflects quickening efforts by the administration to deliver on President Barack Obama’s long-frustrated pledge to close the prison camp at the U.S. naval station despite congressional opposition.

“This change makes the military commissions the exclusive judicial duty for the military judges,” said Lieutenant Colonel Myles Caggins, the Pentagon’s spokesman for military commissions.

A prolonged stay at Guantánamo means that judges who now live in locations including the Washington area, Georgia and Naples, Italy, will have to move to military housing on a base cut off from the rest of Cuba and with few flights to the U.S. mainland. While the naval base offers a beach, it has little more than a handful of modest restaurants and fast-food outlets.

The regulation takes effect immediately while allowing for exceptions for other duties to be performed, and any moves to Guantánamo may still be months away.

Most prisoners who were at Guantánamo have been transferred to the jurisdiction of other countries. A transfer of five inmates to Kazakhstan last month brought the number of prisoners to 127 from a high of 679 in 2003.

Even if dozens more can be transferred in coming months, court action for those awaiting trial at Guantánamo has proceeded at a glacial pace.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was arraigned at Guantánamo for a second time in May 2012 and is still awaiting a trial. Preliminary hearings for Mohammed and four other defendants have been tied up for more than two years over procedural squabbles.

The judge in that case, Army Col. James Pohl, has mostly kept to a schedule calling for a week of hearings every other month. Even that timetable has been delayed at times by everything from legal maneuverings to hurricanes.

While nothing in the new regulation explicitly requires hearings to be held more often, Pohl will soon be living at Guantanamo until the case is resolved.

Locating “the judges at Guantánamo and making the commissions their exclusive judicial duty will increase their availability to schedule trial sessions as needed and as appropriate,” Caggins said.