US military prosecutors are in the final phases of preparing the first sweeping case against suspected conspirators in the plot that led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans on 11 September 2001, people who have been briefed on the case said.
The charges, to be filed in the military commission system at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, would involve as many as six prisoners, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, former senior aide to Osama bin Laden, who has said he was the principal planner of the plot.
Terror target: A file picture of the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre. Around 3,000 people were killed on that day.
The case could begin to fulfil a long-time goal of the Bush administration: establishing culpability for the terrorist attacks of 2001.
But it would also bring new scrutiny to the military commission system, which has a troubled history and has been criticized as a system designed to win convictions and one that does not provide proper legal protections.
War crimes charges against the men would almost certainly place the prosecutors in a battle over the treatment of inmates because at least two detainees tied to the 2001 terror attacks were subject to water- boarding, which the administration denies is a form of torture, or otherwise subject to abusive treatment.
A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, declined to comment specifically, but added that the government was preparing a case against “individuals who have been involved in some of the most grievous acts of violence and terror against the US and our allies.”
Ever since US President George W. Bush announced in 2006 that he had transferred 14 “high value” detainees to Guantánamo from a secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) detention programme, it has been expected that the Pentagon would eventually lodge charges involving several of the numerous terror plots to which officials say several of those men were tied.
Officials have said detainees now held at Guantánamo are responsible for attacks that killed thousands of people, including the East African US embassy bombings in 1998, the attack on the destroyer Cole in 2000 and the Bali nightclub bombings in 2002.
After the US Supreme Court struck down the Bush administration’s first system for military commission trials in 2006, Congress enacted a new law.
Among other things, the Military Commissions Act provides that detainees charged with war crimes are entitled to military lawyers to defend them, a presumption of innocence and a right of appeal. But detainees’ lawyers and other critics have said that many flaws remain, including the fact that the system is under Pentagon control and the judges are military officers.
Told of the possible charges, Carie Lemack, whose mother was killed on American Airlines Flight 11 on 11 September, said such a trial would be a gruelling process for the families. But, she said, “It is important that justice be brought to those who killed my mother and nearly 3,000 others.”
It is known that the prosecutors have considered charges of murder, conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism because of the 11 September deaths. Even if the charges are released soon, it would be months before a trial could be held, lawyers said.
It is also known that a joint team of military and department of justice lawyers working on the case have considered charging six of the best-known Guantánamo detainees. Lawyers have said that two of those are men whose treatment in US hands would inevitably be a focus of defence lawyers in their cases.
One of them, Mohammed, was subject to the simulated-drowning technique known as water-boarding while in secret CIA custody, General Michael Hayden, director of CIA, confirmed this week.
The other detainee whose treatment could become a focus of any trial is Mohammed al-Qahtani, who has been held at Guantánamo since 2002.
Pentagon investigators concluded in 2005 that he had been subject to abusive treatment at Guantánamo, including sleep deprivation, being forced to wear a bra and being led around on a leash.
Gitanjali Gutierrez, one of Qahtani’s lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said she had no information about whether he would be charged. “But if he is,” Gutierrez said, “I can assure you that his well-documented torture and the controversy over secret trials will be the focus.”
Defence lawyers are also expected to use any commission cases to challenge the prosecutors over CIA’s destruction of tapes of interrogations of two detainees, which has been acknowledged by the agency.
Among the other four potential defendants are Guantánamo detainees who intelligence officials have said played critical support roles for the hijackers. They include Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, and the detainee known as Khallad, who is believed to have had long ties to bin Laden. Officials have said Khallad helped select and train some of the hijackers and was originally slated to have been one of them himself.
©2008/the new york times