WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon is planning to charge six detainees at Guantanamo Bay for the September 11 terror attacks on America and seek the death penalty.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said an announcement of the charges, which would be tried before a military tribunal, could come today.
Military prosecutors will ask for the death penalty for the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, according to a second official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the charges had not been announced.
Among those held at Guantanamo is Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the attack six years ago in which hijacked planes were flown into buildings in New York and Washington. Five others are expected to be named in sworn charges.
“The department has been working diligently to prepare cases and bring charges against a number of individuals who have been involved in some of the most grievous acts of violence and terror against the United States and our allies,” Whitman said.
Prosecutors have been working for years to assemble the case against suspects in the attacks that prompted the Bush administration to launch its global war on terror.
“The prosecution team is close to moving forward on referring charges on a number of individuals,” Whitman said, declining to name the defendants.
The New York Times reported in today’s editions that the others are Mohammed al-Qahtani, the man officials have labeled the 20th hijacker; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, said to have been the main intermediary between the hijackers and leaders of Al Qaeda; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, known as Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who has been identified as Mohammed’s lieutenant for the 2001 operation; al-Baluchi’s assistant, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi; and Walid bin Attash, a detainee known as Khallad, who investigators say selected and trained some of the hijackers.
The men would be tried in the military tribunal system that was set up by the administration shortly after the start of the counterterror war and has been widely criticized for it rules on legal representation for suspects, hearings behind closed doors and past allegations of inmate abuse at Guantanamo. Original rules allowed the military to exclude the defendant from his own trial, permitted statements made under torture, and forbade appeal to an independent court; but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the system in 2006 and a revised plan set up after Congress enacted a new law has included some additional rights.
Defense lawyers still criticize the system for its secrecy.
The decision to seek the death penalty also is likely to draw criticism from within the international community. A number of countries, including U.S. allies, have said they would object to the use of capital punishment for their nationals held at Guantanamo.
Officials plan to hold the trial in a specially constructed court at Guantanamo that will allow lawyers, journalists and some others to be present, but leave relatives of Sept. 11 victims and others to watch the trial through closed-circuit broadcasts.
Khalid Sheik Mohammed was among 15 so-called “high-value detainees” who were held at length by the CIA in secret overseas prisons — some subject to what critics call torture — before being handed over to the military in 2006.
In Guantanamo Bay hearings that have been criticized as unfair, he confessed to the September 11 attack and a chilling string of other terror plots last March.
“I was responsible for the 9/11 operation from A to Z,” Mohammed said in a statement read during the session, according to hearing transcripts later released by the Pentagon.
Under the system, prosecutors issue sworn charges, which then are forwarded to the convening authority for military commissions, Susan Crawford. She can refer some or all of them for trial.
Throughout the many challenges to the system, no suspect has actually been brought before a tribunal for trial. And it could be months or longer before trials begin for the six September 11 defendants. With the appeals process, it would likely be some time after any convictions before executions would be possible.