By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - The chief judge for the Guantanamo war crimes court on Thursday refused U.S. President Barack Obama's request to delay proceedings against a prisoner charged with plotting an attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors.
This could force the Pentagon to withdraw the charges, though they could be refiled later if the Obama administration decides to keep the special tribunals at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The White House said it was consulting with the Pentagon and the Department of Justice on how to respond, said spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Hours after taking office last week, Obama ordered Guantanamo prosecutors to seek 120-day delays in all pending cases to give his administration time to decide whether to scrap the widely criticized tribunals created by the Bush administration to try suspected terrorists outside the regular U.S. court system.
But the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, said the law underpinning the tribunals gives the presiding judges sole authority to delay cases. He ruled that postponing proceedings against Abd al Rahim al Nashiri was not reasonable and "does not serve the interest of justice."
Nashiri is charged with conspiring with al Qaeda to crash
an explosives-laden boat against the side of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000. The attack killed 17 U.S. sailors and Nashiri would face execution if convicted. His arraignment was set for February 9.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Obama's executive order freezing the trials, which are formally known as military commissions, would guide the Defence Department's actions.
"This department will be in full compliance with the president's executive order. There's no ifs, ands or buts about that," Morrell told reporters.
"While that executive order is in force and effect, trust me that there will be no proceedings continuing down at Gitmo (Guantanamo Bay) with military commissions."
The military judge, however, noted that Obama directed in his order that it "shall be implemented consistent with applicable law" and the 2006 law authorizing the trials was still applicable.
Military prosecutors and defence lawyers both supported delaying the case, arguing that Obama's pending decision on what to do with Guantanamo could render the proceedings moot. Obama has ordered the prison closed by this time next year.
Morrell said it appeared to be up to Susan Crawford, the Pentagon appointee overseeing the Guantanamo trials, to resolve the matter. She could withdraw the charges without prejudice, allowing them to be refiled again later.
Charges are pending against 21 Guantanamo prisoners, though Crawford has only referred 14 cases to trial. Judges have issued orders freezing the proceedings in six of those.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray, editing by Jim Loney and Alan Elsner)