9/11 trial to resume at Guantánamo, ending quest for civilian trial

The Pentagon yesterday authorized five 9/11 suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to be tried in a military commission on the US base in Guantánamo Bay.

U.S. News & World Report/REUTERS/File
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is seen after his arrest in this 2003 file photo. The accused September 11 mastermind and four suspected co-conspirators were referred on April 4 to trial before a Guantanamo war crimes tribunal on charges that could carry the death penalty, the Pentagon said.

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The military trial for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others suspected of playing a role in the attacks will resume at Guantanamo Bay after authorization yesterday from a Pentagon official, formally ending the Obama administration's quest to have the five men tried in a civilian court.

The United States has been vociferously debating the proper way to handle detainees such as Mr. Mohammed, who has claimed responsibility for plotting the 9/11 attacks, particularly the question of whether he and the other men should be tried in a civilian court as criminals or in a military court as enemy combatants.

The Obama administration tried to move the case into a federal court in New York, but faced fierce congressional and local opposition. In April 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder said he was "reluctantly" pushing the case back to the military, the Washington Post reports. An arraignment will be held at Guantánamo next month.

All five suspects – four of whom played lesser roles such as training or coordinating logistics – could be handed down death sentences, The Christian Science Monitor reports. In addition to Mohammed, they include Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al-Hawsawi.

Several issues already addressed will have to be litigated once again because the trial is beginning anew. Among them are three of the suspects' request for self-representation and evaluation of the mental health and capacity of two of the suspects, according to the Post. The five men all face the possibility of the death penalty for the litany of charges against them: terrorism, hijacking, conspiracy, and murder in violation of the law of war, among others.

The case has been controversial for other reasons as well, such as the methods used for gaining information. The men were held in secret CIA prisons before being sent to Guantánamo, where the CIA admitted to waterboarding Mohammed during interrogation. 

The Christian Science Monitor reports that while the Obama administration worked with Congress in 2009 to overhaul the military commissions, adding safeguards for prisoners that didn't exist under the Bush administration, critics say they are still inadequate for a fair trial. Civil and human rights advocates see the military commissions as "second-class justice."

“The Obama administration is making a terrible mistake by prosecuting the most important terrorism trials of our time in a second-tier system of justice,” Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

“Whatever verdict comes out of the Guantánamo military commissions will be tainted by an unfair process and the politics that wrongly pulled these cases from federal courts, which have safely and successfully handled hundreds of terrorism trials,” he said.

Mr. Romero said military commission procedures and special rules of evidence are designed to win “easy convictions,” and to hide the harsh interrogation tactics – including waterboarding – that Mohammed was subjected to.

The five men are accused of various roles in the 9/11 attacks, the deadliest on US soil. Two commercial airliners were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, causing them to collapse. A third plane was flown into the Pentagon. A fourth, believed to be headed for the Capitol or the White House, crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers overcame the hijackers.

Reuters reports that the case is "double-edged" for President Barack Obama, particularly in an election year. Voters will be reminded that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by a daring raid Mr. Obama approved, but they are likely to also be reminded that the president has not fulfilled his 2008 campaign promise to close the US prison at Guantánamo Bay.

Although the number of people held at Guantánamo has decreased under Obama – from 252 when he took office to 171 today, according to Reuters – the administration failed to find other countries willing to take in the detainees, preventing Guantánamo's closure. 

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