Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Khalid Sheik Mohammed to be tried by military commission
Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four co-defendants accused of planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will be prosecuted in a military commission, a decision that reverses the Obama administration’s long-held goal of bringing the men to trial in federal court as part of its overall strategy of closing the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced the decision during an afternoon news conference. Saying he made the decision “reluctantly,” he blamed barriers thrown up by Congress for the administration’s abandonment of one of its signature goals.
Holder called Congress’s intervention “unwise and unwarranted” and said he continues to believe that the case could have been tried in federal court in Manhattan or, as an alternative he proposed, in upstate New York. He said the Obama administration would continue to work for repeal of the restrictions Congress imposed and would prosecute other terrorism cases in federal courts.
But he said he decided that prosecution of Mohammed and the four other defendants should go ahead in a military tribunal because the restrictions were “unlikely to be repealed in the immediate future” and because the families of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks have already waited too long for justice, which he said is “long overdue.”
In response to questions, Holder said he believes military prosecutors can seek the death penalty in the case. But he said it remains “an open question” whether the death penalty would apply to a defendant who pleaded guilty.
In both symbol and substance, the decision appears to encapsulate Guantanamo Bay’s enduring role as part of the country’s counterterrorism arsenal, and it may mark the end of the administration’s more than two-year effort to close the facility.
Holder first announced the prosecution of Mohammed and his co-defendants in November 2009, the culmination of an almost year-long examination of the cases of every detainee at Guantanamo Bay. And administration officials said justice would be best served by bringing those who orchestrated the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers to the scene of that crime.
But the decision triggered almost immediate opposition from congressional Republicans, who said the attacks on New York and Washington were an act of war, not ordinary crimes, and should be prosecuted in a military tribunal.
Fears about terrorism and the economic toll of holding the trial in lower Manhattan galvanized local opposition, and the administration quietly shelved its plans while insisting it was still committed to federal trials for some Guantanamo detainees.
But Congress has erected a series of barriers to bringing detainees into the United States, even for prosecution, and the administration has now bowed to the near-certainty that it will not overcome what has become bipartisan opposition to federal trials.
The five defendants will now be returned to the courtroom at Guantanamo Bay that was purposely built for them by the Bush administration. Mohammed and the four others were first charged with capital war crimes under the last administration, but Obama suspended proceedings at Guantanamo, and the military then withdrew charges in anticipation of a federal trial.
At the Justice Department’s request, a sealed indictment in New York against the five men was unsealed and dismissed by a federal judge Monday.
The indictment charged Mohammed and his co-defendants — Walid bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa al-Hawsawi — with 10 federal felonies. The charges included conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, to hijack and destroy aircraft and to kill Americans, as well as acts of international terrorism, destruction of aircraft, aircraft piracy, murder of U.S. officers and employees and destruction of commercial property.
According to the unsealed indictment, Mohammed, a Pakistani closely associated with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was the “operational leader” of the Sept. 11 plot. It says Attash, a Yemeni also known as Khallad bin Attash, Tawfiq bin Rashid and other aliases, collected information on airport and airplane security measures. Binalshibh, called Ramzi bin al-Shibh in the indictment, is another Yemeni who “tried to become one of the pilot hijackers but failed to obtain a visa” to enter the United States, the indictment says. Instead, he “managed the plot . . . by, among other things, sending money to hijackers in the United States from abroad.”
Ali, a Pakistani who is Mohammed’s nephew and is better known as Ammar al-Baluchi, also facilitated the plot by sending money to the hijackers, the indictment says. Hawsawi, a Saudi with several aliases including Mustafa Ahmed, participated by “helping the hijackers travel to the United States and facilitating their efforts upon arrival,” according to the indictment.
In moving to drop the federal charges, the Justice Department cited congressional enactment in December 2010 of the Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act, a provision of which effectively bars the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States, even for prosecution.
In his news conference Monday, Holder said the Justice Department had been “prepared to bring a powerful case” against the five defendants and had “consulted extensively with the intelligence community and developed detailed plans for handling classified evidence.”
Blasting the congressional intervention, Holder added: “As the president has said, those unwise and unwarranted restrictions undermine our counterterrorism efforts and could harm our national security. Decisions about who, where and how to prosecute have always been — and must remain — the responsibility of the executive branch. Members of Congress simply do not have access to the evidence and other information necessary to make prosecution judgments. Yet they have taken one of the nation’s most tested counterterrorism tools off the table and tied our hands in a way that could have serious ramifications.”
Holder said U.S. national security “demands that we continue to prosecute terrorists in federal courts, and we will do so.”
In response to questions, he said he knows the Mohammed case “in a way that members of Congress do not.” While he respects “their ability to disagree,” he said, “I think they should respect the fact that this is an executive branch function.”
As for public opposition to holding the trial in Manhattan, Holder said he had proposed bringing it to Otisville Prison in upstate New York, about 78 miles northwest of New York City. Such a venue would have removed “the concerns that people had about bringing a case in Manhattan” and would have “lowered the costs pretty dramatically,” he said.
Courtesy:The Washington Post:World