Almost seven years after terrorists hijacked airliners and used them as missiles to kill 2,973 people, five men who allegedly plotted the attacks face a military tribunal Thursday.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, will be arraigned simultaneously with four other detainees inside a high-security courthouse at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
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Mohammed boasted of numerous attacks and plots against the U.S. in a closed military hearing last year, and the al-Qaida kingpin and his confederates will be given the chance to speak out again in their war crimes trial, according to a top tribunal official, Air Force Brig. Gen. Tom Hartmann.
“In the course of trial they'll have opportunity to present their case, any way they want to present it subject to rules and procedures,” Hartmann said. “That's a great freedom and a great protection we are providing to them. We think … it is the American way.”
The arraignment will launch the highest-profile test yet of a tribunal system that faces an uncertain future. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down an earlier system as unconstitutional in 2006 and is to rule this month on the rights of Guantanamo prisoners, potentially delaying or halting the proceedings.
And with less than eight months remaining in President Bush's term, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain both say they want to close the detention center.
Dozens of U.S. and international journalists arrived at Guantanamo on Wednesday on a military plane from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, joining prosecutors, defense attorneys and observers who arrived earlier at the Navy base.
Mohammed and the four alleged co-conspirators all face possible death sentences. They are expected to be seated this morning at separate defense tables aligned in a row inside the prefab courthouse. Many of the participants and observers will stay nearby in tents erected on an abandoned airport runway as part of the “expeditionary” legal complex.
Family members of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, wanted to attend, but the military said it was too difficult logistically to accommodate dozens more people. Instead, the military is planning to show the trial but not the arraignment on closed-circuit television to victims' families gathered on U.S. military bases.
“For transparency and to add legitimacy to the trial, they should have the loved ones there,” said Dominic Puopolo, whose mother, Sonia Morales Puopolo, was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11, the first jet that crashed into the World Trade Center.
Puopolo said he also wanted to see the defendants, especially Mohammed, who claimed he personally proposed the plot to Osama bin Laden.
“This is an architect of such pure evil,” Puopolo told The Associated Press. “I want to see him eye to eye.”
Even without televised coverage of his arraignment – Mohammed's first public appearance since his capture in 2003 – the U.S. is taking a security risk by giving him an opportunity to spread al-Qaida propaganda, said Benedetta Berti, a research fellow at Tufts University's Jebsen Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies.
“This is a very educated man,” she said. “It is a risk because he could attack the U.S. in terms of international opinion and his audience is not just the international community, it is more specifically potential jihadists.”
The tribunals, which Congress and the Bush administration resurrected after the 2006 Supreme Court ruling, have been mired in confusion over courtroom rules and dogged by delays. No detainee has been tried yet, although David Hicks was convicted through a plea bargain and allowed to serve a nine-month sentence in Australia.
Critics say men accused of such horrific crimes must be brought to justice, but in a way that shows the world that the U.S. has treated them fairly.
“While everyone seems to recognize that the time to bring those responsible for 9-11 to justice is long overdue, this needs to be done in a system that has credibility,” said Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch.
Hartmann sought to draw a distinction between the tribunals and the sometimes brutal U.S. detention and interrogation practices that have been condemned around the world.
“We are not Guantanamo, we are not Camp X-Ray, we are not Abu Ghraib,” he said, referring to notorious holding centers at Guantanamo and Iraq. “We are the military commissions, uniformed officers on the prosecution and the defense, with established court procedures.”
Attorney General Michael Mukasey also said Wednesday that the tribunals will be “in the best traditions of the American legal system” even though the military judges can consider hearsay evidence and confessions obtained through coercion, which aren't admissible in civilian courts. “Different situations call for different solutions,” he said.