More than eight years after two hijacked planes
smashed into the Twin Towers of lower Manhattan killing thousands and
sparking foreign wars, five men accused of helping to plot the carnage
are to be brought to face trial in a civilian courthouse just a few
blocks away from Ground Zero.
defendants, who include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-declared
mastermind of the al-Qa'ida attacks of 2001, will be transferred,
possibly in a matter of weeks, to New York City from the fortified US
military camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they are currently being
The decision, announced yesterday by
the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, is central to the efforts of
President Barack Obama to fulfil the promise he made on taking office
to close Guantanamo Bay, although US officials now concede that the
original deadline of 22 January next year might not be met.
While bringing the five 9/11 defendants to the
scene of their alleged crime drew most attention - not least from those
worried about the security implications of their coming to New York -
Mr Holder also announced that five other high-profile detainees at
Guantanamo will also be transferred out for trial by a revised military
commission. He did not say where the commission tribunals would take
No details of the precise
nature of the charges against the 9/11 five were available. But
Mohammed and the four others bound for Manhattan - Waleed bin Attash,
Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi and Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali -
will face the death penalty if they are convicted, Mr Holder said.
Obama, who wants to erase the perception that America has been
hypocritical in its treatment of the detainees by not granting them the
proper protections of civilian justice, voiced his confidence in the
decision. "I am absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will
be subjected to the most exacting demands of justice," he told
reporters in Tokyo, on the first day of his Asian tour.
there is no disguising the risks involved in bringing the five to New
York, legal and political. The task of the prosecutors will be
complicated above all by the past history of "enhanced interrogation"
techniques used by the CIA, which could make some evidence
inadmissible. Documents have shown that water-boarding, which simulates
near-drowning, was used on Mohammed 183 times in 2003.
that these were the most difficult decisions he has faced since
becoming Attorney General, Mr Holder dodged questions about what would
happen specifically if Mohammed or any of his co-defendants were to be
acquitted. It would seem inconceivable to most Americans, and certainly
to relatives of the 2,973 people who were killed by the 9/11 attacks,
that they would be allowed to walk out free.
Holder repeatedly insisted that he was confident that the prosecutions
of the five coming to New York would succeed, revealing also that he
was privy to evidence regarding their alleged crimes that has not yet
been released publicly. "For over 200 years our nation has relied upon
a faithful adherence to the rule of law," he asserted. "Once again, we
will ask our legal system in two venues to answer that call."
five detainees headed for trial by military commission - the formats of
which have been revised by the Obama administration to offer defendants
more legal protections - include the principal suspect in the bombing
of the USS Cole in 2000, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. There was speculation
that the commission's trials would take place on a Navy brig on the
South Carolina coast.
The prospect of Mohammed
and the other alleged 9/11 conspirators coming to New York triggered
instant and furious debate. "By trying them in our federal courts, we
demonstrate to the world that the most powerful nation on earth also
trusts its judicial system," insisted Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat
and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
many Republicans voiced alarm as did some of the victims' relatives.
"We have a President who doesn't know we're at war," complained Debra
Burlingame, whose brother Charles was pilot of the plane that was
hijacked and smashed into the Pentagon. She said she was appalled by
"the prospect of these barbarians being turned into victims by their
attorneys" as claims of their having been tortured are aired.
When the five arrive in New York, probably early next year, they are
likely to be held in a fortified jail in lower Manhattan near the
court. Called the Metropolitan Correctional Center, it has served as a
temporary home to the likes of Mafia captains and Wall Street