Obama U-turn over trial of 9/11 'mastermind'

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-described mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Manhattan, will be tried by a military tribunal and not the US courts, the Obama administration conceded yesterday, in a capitulation to opponents and a reversal of its vow to rip up President George W Bush's system for handling terror suspects.

The move was greeted with disappointment among liberal campaigners and announced with unconcealed anger by President Barack Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder. He said: "Members of Congress have intervened and imposed restrictions blocking the administration from bringing any Guantanamo detainees to trial in the United States, regardless of the venue."

Public and political opposition to holding the trial in lower Manhattan, near the site of the destroyed World Trade Centre, forced the attorney general to review his first decision, and no other venue proved acceptable. In the end, Congress voted to ban any money being spent on bringing Guantanamo detainees into the US.

"Those unwise and unwarranted restrictions undermine our counterterrorism efforts and could harm our national security," Mr Holder said, but the families of those killed on 11 September, 2001, have waited too long already for justice, and "it must not be delayed any longer".

The fate of Mr Mohammed's trial was the remaining loose end of a humiliating policy reversal for Mr Obama, whose global prestige has been significantly dented by the failure to undo the Bush administration's system of military tribunals for terror suspects and to close Guantanamo Bay – an extra-judicial US military prison on Cuban soil that had become a hated symbol in the Muslim world and an embarrassment to the US's liberal supporters. On his second day in office, Mr Obama ordered Guantanamo be closed within a year, but it proved impossible to implement.

Last month, after a two-year freeze on military tribunals at Guantanamo, the administration said they would be restarted and laid down the rules for holding some of the detainees inside the camp indefinitely.

In November 2009, Mr Holder announced that Mr Mohammed and four co-defendants would be tried in Manhattan over the 9/11 attacks which killed almost 3,000 people. The criminal case against the men was unsealed by the Justice department yesterday, ahead of Mr Holder's announcement, and has been dismissed. The other defendants now to be tried in a military tribunal are Ramzi Binalshibh and Walid bin Attash, both from Yemen; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, a Pakistani who is Mohammed's nephew; and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a Saudi.

Republicans reacted with delight, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg welcomed the reversal, saying the costs of providing security for the trial would have been prohibitive, and military tribunals were "nothing to be ashamed of". But the American Civil Liberties Union described the administration's "flip-flop" as "devastating for the rule of law".

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