September 11 suspects to be tried at Guantanamo Bay

The United States said on Monday it would try self-professed September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators in Guantanamo Bay, a political setback for President Barack Obama who had promised to prosecute them in a criminal court.

Attorney General Eric Holder blamed lawmakers for the policy reversal, saying their decision in January to block funding for prosecuting the 9/11 suspects in a U.S. criminal court "tied our hands" and forced the administration to resume military trials.

His announcement was an embarrassing reversal of the administration's decision in November 2009 to try Mohammed in a court near the site of the World Trade Center attack that killed nearly 3,000 people.

The decision was an admission that Obama has not been able to overcome political opposition to his effort to close the prison for terrorism suspects and enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, a key 2008 campaign promise. It came on the day he kicked off his campaign for re-election in 2012.

James Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said a military trial for the five men was "the only rational course of action," which Monday's decision effectively acknowledged.

"It's really a tacit admission about how much of the earlier rhetoric (of the Obama administration) was about the politics and not about the reality or legality of Guantanamo," Carafano said.

Obama has called the Guantanamo Bay facility, set up by his predecessor President George W. Bush, a recruiting symbol for anti-American groups and said allegations of prisoner mistreatment there had tarnished America's reputation.

He promised to close the prison by the end of his first year in office, but that deadline passed with no action as the administration confronted the hard reality of finding countries willing to accept custody of the inmates.

The prison still holds 172 people, down from 245 when Obama took office in January 2009.

Decision Welcomed

The decision to try the five men before military commissions was praised in New York and Washington. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the cost of holding the trials in Manhattan would have been near "a billion dollars" at a time of tight budgets.

Chuck Schumer, a Democratic senator for New York, called it "the final nail in the coffin of that wrong-headed idea."

Julie Menin, who spearheaded opposition to the trials in New York, said the decision was a "victory for lower Manhattan and my community."

But others, like Valerie Lucznikowska, said the use of military commissions was "just not satisfying to people who want real justice." The 72-year-old New Yorker, whose nephew died in the World Trade Center attack, said the military commissions could be viewed by the world as "kangaroo courts."

Holder said he still believed the 9/11 suspects would best be prosecuted in U.S. civil courts, despite strong congressional opposition.

In moving the case back to a military commission, the Justice Department unsealed a nine-count indictment against Mohammed, an al Qaeda leader captured in Pakistan in 2003, and four others: Walid bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi.

The document describes how Mohammed trained the September 11 hijackers to use short-bladed knives -- like the box-cutters wielded during the attacks -- by killing sheep and camels. He also taught them to sneak the knives through airport security and how to obtain driver's licenses in the United States.

Captain John Murphy, the chief prosecutor of the office of military commissions, said his office would swear charges in the near future against the five suspects for their alleged roles in the 2001 attacks.

[Source: By James Vicini and David Alexander, Reuters, Washington, 04Apr11]

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