US officials cleared the way on Wednesday for a long-delayed trial of the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and four alleged plotters, unveiling charges that carry a possible death sentence.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his accused conspirators have been held for years at the US-run prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while a legal and political battle has played out over how and where to prosecute them.
“The charges allege that the five accused are responsible for the planning and execution of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, resulting in the killing of 2,976 people,” the Department of Defense said in a statement.
If convicted before a military tribunal, “the five accused could be sentenced to death,” it said.
More than a decade after the attacks that jolted the American pysche, “it is important to see that justice is done,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
He said US President Barack Obama was still committed to making good on his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, after legal setbacks and stiff opposition in Congress forced his hand.
The 46-year-old Mohammed, along with Walid bin Attash of Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s Ramzi Binalshibh, Pakistan’s Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali — also known as Ammar al-Baluchi — and Mustapha Ahmed al-Hawsawi of Saudi Arabia are due to appear in court for arraignment proceedings within 30 days, the Pentagon said.
The joint trial, which could be months away, will be held at the American naval base in Guantanamo Bay, where the US government has set up special military commissions to try terror suspects. Mohammed, who US officials refer to simply as “KSM,” has been at the center of a years-old debate over the legal fate of the accused plotters.
After he was captured nine years ago, Mohammed was subjected repeatedly to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding that has been widely condemned as torture and other harsh interrogation methods.
His treatment in US custody has raised questions about whether his statements to interrogators will hold up in a trial, but testimony from a former aide may resolve that problem.
Majid Khan, once Mohammed’s deputy, has accepted a plea deal with US authorities that will require him to testify against other terror suspects.
After taking office in 2009, Obama initially sought to hold trial for Mohammed and his four accused accomplices in civilian court in New York, just steps from the “Ground Zero” site where the World Trade Center’s twin towers fell in 2001.
However, the proposal sparked criticism and the president’s Republican foes in Congress put an end to those plans by blocking the transfer of terror suspects to the US.
Buck McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said it was fitting that the accused be tried before a military tribunal.
“It is time for the American people to hear the fullest possible account of the atrocities that these individuals have committed against the United States,” he said. “It is time for judgement to be passed and long-delayed justice to be done.”