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Last updated: April 5, 2011 1:22 am
The US will put Khaled Sheikh Mohammed on trial at the detention centre at Guantánamo Bay, giving up on plans to try the self-styled architect of the September 11 attacks in a civilian court.
The move, announced by Eric Holder, attorney-general, is one of the highest profile policy reversals yet carried out by the Obama administration, which has sought both to close Guantánamo and treat detainees on a normal legal basis.
Facing almost wholesale resistance in Congress to its previous plans, the administration had previously announced that it would resume trials of Guantánamo detainees by military commissions – the format that will now decide Mr Mohammed’s fate and that of four other co-conspirators.
However, it had not yet proceeded with any specific cases, let alone with that of the best known of all the alleged plotters.
Mr Holder told a press conference Congress had forced the administration’s hand by passing a law that forbade the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to the US mainland. “They have taken one of the nation’s most tested counter-terrorism tools off the table and tied our hands,” he said.
Mr Holder added that the administration would seek to repeal the restrictions but also had to face the truth that they were “unlikely to be repealed in the immediate future”.
Champions of the military commission system say it will offer fewer legal protections for the defendants than would a civilian court, but detractors argue it is legally suspect and that its rulings are likely to be challenged by the US Supreme Court – as has happened in the past.
Mr Holder said he stood by his original decision and that he remained confident that the “powerful” case against the alleged plotters would have been enough to secure their conviction in a criminal court.
In 2009, the attorney-general had predicted Mr Mohammed would be transferred to Manhattan to face the “trial of the century”.
On Monday, he said it was an “open question about whether or not somebody can plead guilty in a military commission and still receive the death penalty” and conceded the decision to try the men on site would probably delay Guantánamo’s closure still further.
However, in a sign of political opinion on Capitol Hill and beyond, members of Congress overwhelmingly welcomed the decision.
“This means with certainty that the trial will not be in New York,” said Charles Schmumer, one of the two Democratic Senators from the state. “While not unexpected, this is the final nail in the coffin of that wrong-headed idea.”
Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, congratulated the administration on its change of course, labelling civilian trials “a horrible idea that rightly drew overwhelming bipartisan opposition from the American people and their elected representatives here in Congress”.
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