Accused to be tried by US military (+ video)

By Andrew Gumbel

The United States is to try suspected September 11 attackers under the Bush Administration's much-criticised military tribunal system, which is subject only to partial oversight by the civilian appeals system.

The US military announced yesterday that it was bringing death penalty charges against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and five others suspected of orchestrating the September 11 attacks.

The decision to use Mohammed and the others as guinea-pigs in a constitutionally dubious legal proceeding is likely to trigger a firestorm of anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world and spark a fractious domestic debate in an already highly charged presidential election year.

While few doubts have been raised, domestically or internationally, about the men's involvement in the attacks on New York and Washington, just about everything else about their treatment has been bitterly contested and is likely to continue to be contested, inside the courtroom and out.

Everything is laden with potential controversy in the decision to try the six men together rather than individually, the proposed venue at Guantanamo Bay, where all six are being held, the threatened use of the death penalty, and perhaps the most controversial question of all: the admissibility of evidence gathered through waterboarding and other coercive techniques generally defined as torture.

Even Brigadier-General Thomas Hartmann, the Pentagon official co-ordinating the case, acknowledged yesterday that it could be several months before a trial begins and months more, if not years, before any death penalty - assuming it is enforced - is carried out.

Hartmann was careful to say he wanted the trial proceedings to be "as completely open as possible", with lawyers and journalists present.

He stressed that the men would be regarded as innocent until proven guilty, just as they would in a civilian court. And he promised to provide "every piece of evidence, every stitch of evidence, every whiff of evidence" to the defendants' lawyers so they would be fully able to prepare for trial.

That did little to stop Clive Stafford Smith, the British civil rights lawyer who has worked on behalf of "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo, to issue a swift condemnation.

"What will the US achieve by hauling these men before a kangaroo court and executing them?" he asked. "Anyone can see the hypocrisy of espousing human rights, then trampling on them. We will infuriate our allies who firmly oppose the death penalty. We will anger the world."

But contrary to Hartmann's assurances, it is far from clear what rights any of these men will have. The Supreme Court, which struck down an earlier version of the military tribunal system, is expected to rule before July on the precise rights that prisoners at Guantanamo do and do not have.

Several commentators said the Bush Administration was taking a risk by trying to press ahead with the trials. Its previous efforts to pursue justice against suspected terrorists have been patchy.

The Administration appears to believe that it can win the argument by stirring up the country's emotions about the worst peacetime attack on its own soil.


SIX SUSPECTS

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
The Pakistani, educated in the US, claims responsibility for 31 attacks and plots including the 9/11 attacks and the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Accused of being military commander for al Qaeda's foreign operations. Captured in Pakistan in 2003 and taken to Guantanamo Bay from secret CIA prison. During interrogation, was subjected to simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.

Ali Adb Al-Aziz Ali
A nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and cousin of jailed 9/11 bomber Ramzi Yousef. Accused of facilitating the attacks by transferring US$120,000 to US-based operatives and assisting nine hijackers on their way from Pakistan.

Ramzi Bin al-shibh
The former room-mate of Mohamed Atta is accused of being a link between al Qaeda and the hijackers. The Pentagon says he helped find flight schools for the al Qaeda pilots.

Walid Bin Attash
The Yemeni, who was raised in Saudi Arabia, is accused of running al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan where he trained two 9/11 hijackers. Has admitted planning the attack on the USS Cole, and has also claimed involvement in the bombing of the US Embassy in Kenya.

Mustafa Ahmad al-hawsawi
The Saudi national is accused of being a money-man for the 9/11 attackers. The Pentagon says he provided them with cash, Western clothing, credit cards and traveller's cheques.

Mohammed al-Qahtani
Officials say he was meant to be one of the hijackers but was barred from the US by immigration officials at Orlando Airport. Captured at Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan.

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