The Pentagon has announced plans to move ahead with a military trial for three men held at Guantánamo Bay who are suspected of involvement in the 2002 Bali bombings.
After an unexplained delay, a senior military legal official on Thursday approved non-capital charges that include conspiracy, murder and terrorism for the three men, who have been in US custody for 17 years for their alleged roles in the deadly bombing of Bali nightclubs in 2002 and a year later of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta.
The bombings on the island of Bali killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, including 88 Australians and three New Zealanders.
Military prosecutors filed charges against Encep Nurjaman, an Indonesian known as Hambali, and the other two men in June 2017.
Hambali is alleged to have been the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a south-east Asian affiliate of al-Qaida. The Pentagon said in a brief statement on the case that he is accused with Mohammed Nazir bin Lep and Mohammed Farik bin Amin, who are from Malaysia, of planning and aiding the attacks.
All three were captured in Thailand in 2003 and held in CIA custody before they were taken to Guantánamo three years later.
The timing of the charges, which had been submitted under Donald Trump but not finalised, caught lawyers for the men by surprise and would seem to be in conflict with president Joe Biden’s intention to close the detention centre.
Gen Lloyd Austin, Biden’s nominee to be secretary of defence, this week reaffirmed the intention to close Guantánamo to the Senate committee considering his nomination.
“The timing here is obvious, one day after the inauguration,” said Marine Corps Maj James Valentine, the appointed military attorney for the most prominent of the three. “This was done in a state of panic before the new administration could get settled.”
A spokesman for the military commissions, which have been bogged down for years over legal challenges largely centred around the brutal treatment of men during their previous confinement in CIA detention facilities, had no immediate comment.
After military prosecutors filed charges in mid-2017, the case was rejected by the Pentagon legal official known as a convening authority for reasons that aren’t publicly known.
“The case fell apart on them. I cannot tell you why because that’s classified,” said Valentine, part of the legal team for Hambali.
Now that the convening authority has approved charges, the US must arraign the prisoners before the military commission at the base in Cuba. Court proceedings at Guantánamo have been halted by the pandemic and it’s not clear when they will resume.
A cleric who inspired the October 2002 Bali bombings, along with other attacks, was released from an Indonesian prison earlier this month after completing his sentence for funding the training of Islamic militants.
The August 2003 attack on the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta killed 12 and wounded about 150.
In December, Indonesian police arrested a man believed to be the military leader of Jemaah Islamiyah network.
The most prominent Guantánamo case, involving five men charged over the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, has been stuck in the pre-trial phase since their arraignment in May 2012. No date for the death penalty trial has been set.
The US holds 40 men at Guantánamo. Barack Obama sought to close the detention centre, move the prisoners to facilities inside the US and transfer military trials to civilian courts.
Obama reduced the prisoner population but his effort to close Guantánamo was blocked by Congress, which prohibited transferring anyone from the base to the US for any reason.
Biden has said he favours closing the detention centre but has not yet disclosed his plans for the facility. In written testimony to the Senate, Austin said he would work with others in the administration to develop a “path forward” to closure.
“I believe it is time for the detention facility at Guantánamo to close its doors,” he said.