Nine years on, no trial in sight for alleged 9/11 plotters

2010-09-09 07:33

Washington – Nine years after the September 11 2001 attacks, five men accused of plotting the devastating strikes remain in a legal black hole, with political and legal wrangling delaying their prosecution.

They are detained at Guantanamo, which is still open almost two years after President Barack Obama was elected, pledging to close the facility.

And the question of whether they should be prosecuted before US civilian courts or military tribunals at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has yet to be resolved.

The administration announced with much fanfare late last year that the high-profile suspects would be tried before a court in New York, just steps from where the 9/11 hijackers rammed planes into the World Trade Center towers.

But the decision prompted a furious backlash, with many opposed to a trial anywhere in the United States for the alleged perpetrators of the attacks that killed nearly 3 000 people in New York and Washington.

“The review continues,” a US government official said of the administration’s search for trial venue for the five men, who include the self-described mastermind of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

But with key mid-term elections scheduled for November, no decision on the politically sensitive issues is expected soon.

“Realistically we won’t hear anything about the venue until after the election,” said Andrea Prasow, a terrorism specialist with Human Rights Watch.

The political wrangling means that despite years in custody, none of the men are even facing charges at present. They had been charged before a Guantanamo military tribunal, but those charges were dropped after the Obama administration announced in November last year they would face trial in New York.

The five were to be charged with new counts, under the US civilian judicial system, but no new charges can be filed until the administration decides where to prosecute the men.

The men “are detained like the others at Guantanamo, like prisoners of war, illegal enemy combatants,” said Suzanne Lachelier, a military lawyer assigned to one of the five, Ramzi Binalshibh.

“The military prosecutors are continuing to prepare their cases, but we can’t do anything because we don’t have the money,” Lachlier said, adding that she and her colleagues were still meeting with their clients.

The scale of opposition to a US trial for the men – the issue briefly united Republicans and some Democrats – may force the White House to abandon the idea entirely.

Opponents argue bringing the alleged plotters into the United States endangers Americans and forces US courts to accord the men constitutional rights they would not otherwise enjoy.

Faced with a raft of other policy questions, the administration could opt to simply hold the much-anticipated trial before a military tribunal, possibly at Guantanamo.

In the case of other so-called “high value detainees”, the administration may simply drop prosecutions plans.

It has already signalled its intention to do so in the case of Saudi detainee Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.

In February last year, the Pentagon suspended the charges against him while a review of pending Guantanamo cases was carried out by the new administration.

But the Justice Department later said it was shelving the case altogether.

“No charges are either pending or contemplated with respect to al-Nashiri in the near future,” a motion filed by government lawyers in August said.

The delay is seen by some as a national disgrace, by others as an international affront, and 18 months after taking office, Obama is being criticised for failing to take decisive action.

“They are afraid that they’re going to be accused of influencing the process but it is just ridiculous,” Lachelier said, adding: “It’s also a question of what battle does the administration want to take on with Republicans.”

And the desire to see the attack’s perpetrators prosecuted may simply have faded nine years later, Prasow said.

“So many years later, I think some people have accepted the fact that this trial might never take place.”

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