Justice at Ground Zero for September 11 accused

Five men set to leave Guantanamo Bay to face trial in a civilian court in New York

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.

The 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 held.

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 place, however.

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.

President 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.

But 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.

Saying 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.

Mr 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."

The 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.

But 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 fraudsters.

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