Case against alleged Sept. 11 plotters will take time, test new tribunals
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By ANDREW O. SELSKY
Associated Press Writer
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Nearly six and a half years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. is preparing to prosecute six of the men it says are responsible. But the trial and verdicts -- not to mention justice -- remain a long way off in the death-penalty cases.
Given the slow pace of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, verdicts on charges announced at the Pentagon on Monday are unlikely before President Bush leaves office in January 2009. The trials themselves may not even be under way by then -- and the next president may be less keen on the military tribunal system.
Throwing the process into further doubt, the Supreme Court is expected to rule in a few months on whether Guantanamo detainees can challenge their confinement in civilian courts.
Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, the legal adviser to the military commissions, told a Pentagon news conference that the trial for the six Guantanamo detainees is at least 120 days away, "and probably well beyond that."
Critics of the untested military commissions system say the high-profile trial will expose its flaws.
In 2006, a previous system was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Months later, Congress and President Bush resurrected the tribunals in an altered form under the Military Commissions Act.
The cases are also complicated by recent revelations that alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the six charged, was subjected to a harsh interrogation technique known as waterboarding -- which critics say is a form of torture.
Hartmann said it will be up to the military judge to determine what evidence is allowed.
Pretrial hearings for two other Guantanamo detainees stalled last week over secrecy shrouding government files on terror suspects.
Hartmann said the six defendants will get the same rights as U.S. soldiers tried under the military justice system, including the right to remain silent, call witnesses, and know the evidence against them.
But questions of due process could overshadow the proceedings, according to Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch.
"By trying these men before flawed military commissions in Guantanamo Bay, the United States makes the system the center of attention rather the defendants and their alleged crimes," Daskal told The Associated Press.
Steven Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a telephone interview that "the administration now has placed itself in terrible bind because it subjected at least some, if not all, the six men to harsh interrogation techniques that the world regards as torture."
Under the Military Commissions Act, statements obtained through torture are not admissible. But some statements obtained through "coercion" may be admitted at the discretion of a military judge.
The tribunal system requires that a panel of at least 12 military officers unanimously find a defendant guilty in capital cases, Hartmann said.
A federal appeals court in Washington can hear appeals, but it can only assess compliance with the standards and procedures under the 2006 law. The Supreme Court may review that court's final judgment.
The charges against the six men reveal the meticulous planning that went into the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Mohammed, who was among the six charged on Monday, and al-Qaida boss Osama bin Laden discussed "the operational concept of hijacking commercial airliners and crashing them into buildings in the United States" as early as 1996, the charge sheet says.
In early 1999, bin Laden directed Waleed bin Attash, also among the six, to obtain a U.S. visa to go to flight training and participate in the attacks.
Bin Attash was allegedly prevented from a direct role in the attack when he was arrested and briefly detained in Yemen in early 2001, but investigators say he selected and trained some hijackers
Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Mohammed's nephew, is accused of delivering money to the hijackers and coordinating their travel plans. Just days before the attacks, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, a Saudi also among the group, allegedly collected thousands of dollars in unused funds via wire transfers for the plot, the sheet says.
"These charges allege a long term, highly sophisticated, organized plan by al-Qaida to attack the United States of America," Hartmann told reporters. He said 169 charges were pressed against the suspects.
The two other men charged are: Mohammed al-Qahtani, the man officials have labeled the 20th hijacker, and Ramzi Binalshibh, said to have been the main intermediary between the hijackers and leaders of al-Qaida.
Mohammed was among 15 "high-value detainees" who were held at length by the CIA in secret overseas prisons before being handed over to the military. The 15 are kept separate from the other 260 detainees at Guantanamo in a secret facility called Camp 7.
Officials plan to hold the trial in a specially constructed court at Guantanamo that will allow lawyers, journalists and others to be present, but leave relatives of Sept. 11 victims and others to watch the trial through closed-circuit broadcasts.
Under the commissions system, the charges filed Monday will be forwarded to the convening authority for military commissions, Susan Crawford. She can refer some or all of them for trial.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said the president and the White House had no role in the decision to seek the death penalty.
"Obviously 9/11 was a defining moment in our history, and a defining moment in the global war on terror," Perino said. "And this judicial process is the next step in that story. The president is sure that the military is going to follow through in a way that the Congress said they should."
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Defense Department charges: http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Feb2008/d20080211chargesheet.pdf