US President Barack Obama’s decision to resume military trials for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will open the door for the prosecution there of several suspected Sept. 11 conspirators, including alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Obama’s order, which reverses his move two years ago to halt new trials, has reignited arguments over the legality of the military commissions, despite ongoing US efforts to reform the hotly debated system.
But fierce congressional opposition to trying Mohammed and other Guantanamo detainees in the US left Obama with few options. And it forced him to reluctantly retreat, at least for now, on his promise to shut the prison down.
A handful of detainees have been charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, including Mohammed, but the charges were dismissed following Obama’s decision to halt military commissions in January 2009.
Administration officials on Monday declined to discuss the potential prosecution of Mohammed or the other detainees. However, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Guantanamo is a safe location for such a trial.
Guantanamo has been a major political and national security headache for Obama since he took office promising to close the prison within a year, a deadline that came and went without him setting a new one.
Obama and his top defense leaders all emphasized their preference for trials in federal civilian courts, and his administration blamed congressional meddling for closing off that avenue.
“I strongly believe that the American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and we will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system — including [federal] courts — to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened,” Obama said in a statement.
The first Guantanamo trial likely to proceed under Obama’s new order would involve Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen.
Al-Nashiri, a Saudi of Yemeni descent, has been imprisoned at Guantanamo since 2006.
Defense officials have said that of around 170 detainees at Guantanamo, about 80 are expected to face trial by military commission.
On Monday, the White House reiterated its commitment to eventually close Guantanamo.
Critics of the military commission system, which was established specifically to deal with the detainees at Guantanamo, contend that suspects are not given some of the most basic protections afforded people prosecuted in US courts and that serves as a recruitment tool for terrorists.
Obama’s administration has enacted some changes to the military commission system while aiming to close down Guantanamo.
More than two dozen detainees have been charged there, and so far six detainees have been convicted and sentenced. They include Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, Osama bin Laden’s media specialist who told jurors he had volunteered to be the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker. He is serving a life sentence at Guantanamo.
Meanwhile, the first Guantanamo detainee tried in civilian court — in New York — was convicted in November on just one of more than 280 charges that he took part in the al-Qaeda bombings of two US embassies in Africa. That case ignited strident opposition to any further such trials.
The US Justice Department planned to have Mohammed’s trial in New York, but Obama bowed to political resistance and blocked it.