In the first step toward trying the alleged plotters behind the devastating Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, five men, including the alleged mastermind, will be arraigned on June 5 before a US military judge in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Nearly seven years after the attacks and at least five years after their capture, Pakistan-born Kuwaiti Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the purported key planner of the attacks, and four others will formally be charged with murder, terrorism and other war crimes, launching the process of trying them under special military commissions at the US naval base at Guantanamo.
All face possible death sentences, but the question of whether the trials will ever get underway and how long they could last still looms darkly over the process.
To be arraigned alongside Mohammed are Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, a Saudi Arabian; Ramzi Binalshibh of Yemen; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Mohammed’s nephew also from Kuwait; and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi of Saudi Arabia.
The five were arrested between 2002 and 2003 and held for interrogation for several years in secret CIA prisons outside the US. In 2006 they were transferred to Guantanamo, but only in May were they referred for trial by the convening authority of the military commissions set up to try US “war on terror” detainees.
In the June 5 hearing, judge Ralph Kohlmann, a US Marine colonel, will formally read the charges against them and allow each to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty, or postpone the plea.
The Pentagon expects some 60 journalists to be on hand for this relatively open proceeding, but issues involving the lawyers’ tightly restricted access to the defendants has already raised questions about the process.
Until charges were first officially set in February, the detainees were unable to meet lawyers, as the military had designated the men themselves with top secret classifications.
Since then the combination of the official secrecy surrounding the government’s cases and the logistics of traveling to Guantanamo have meant limited meetings with their military and civilian lawyers.
Faced with such barriers defense lawyers had asked for a continuance, or postponement, of the arraignment, but on Thursday Kohlmann rejected the request.
“The commission recognizes that there are many logistic and legal issues that will need to be addressed in this case. It is precisely because of the anticipated complexity of this case, that it is important that the process get under way,” he said.
Of the five to be tried, Mohammed is the most prominent, having allegedly confessed to planning and organizing the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking of four US commercial jets that crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon in Washington, and a rural field in Pennsylvania, killing 2,974 people.
His trial could become snagged on legal issues surrounding the CIA’s admission that it subjected Mohammed to waterboarding, the interrogation technique simulating drowning that is widely considered torture.
The hearing will take place in a purpose-built courtroom in Guantanamo, constructed in a way that will allow the judge to prevent unauthorized people from hearing any official secrets that may be disclosed in the trials.