Accused 9/11 plotters to face death penalty trial at Guantanamo

By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau
Posted April 04, 2012, at 5:32 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Five senior members of al-Qaida who are accused of planning the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks will face a death penalty trial at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay later this year, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the coordinated skyjackings, and four co-defendants will be tried together in a military judicial system that was revamped by the Obama administration in 2009 to give defendants more legal protections and to prohibit the use of evidence obtained through torture.

Retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, the head of the military commissions, officially referred the case for trial Wednesday. The five men will appear before a military judge for an arraignment within 30 days, said the Pentagon. They will be represented by military and civilian defense attorneys.

Charged with Mohammed are Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, a Pakistani; Ramzi Binalshibh and Walid bin Attash, both Yemenis; and Mustafa al-Hawsawi, a Saudi.

The men face charges of terrorism, hijacking aircraft, conspiracy and murder in violation of the law of war, among other charges. If convicted, they could be sentenced to death.

All five men were held in secret CIA “black sites” before they were transferred to the U.S. naval station in Cuba in 2006. Mohammed was repeatedly waterboarded, a technique that critics call torture, which has complicated efforts to prosecute him.

The start of the military trial process comes after a long and stuttering effort to bring to justice those responsible for the worst terrorist act in U.S. history. The attacks in New York, Washington D.C., and Shanksville, Pa., killed 2,976 people.

The five were first charged by the military in 2008 under the George W. Bush administration. But the case was suspended after President Barack Obama sought to try the men in federal court in New York City, and to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The civilian trial was derailed by fierce opposition in Congress and by local officials in New York. In April 2011, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that military would handle the case.

The trial will test changes made to the military commissions that prohibit the use of evidence received through torture, cruel or degrading treatment. Opponents of the military trials said that, despite Obama’s reforms, the commissions are still biased against defendants because the court rules allow the use of hearsay and secret evidence.

“Whatever verdict comes out of the Guantanamo 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,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

©2012 Tribune Co.

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