U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on November 13 that the trial of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators would be held in federal court in Manhattan. And, as would be expected, the announcement opened a floodgate of opinion for and against the decision.
The Stratfor Global Intelligence Report stated that Holder’s decision was “driven” by the need for the U.S. government to decide how to dispose of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which is the U.S. naval base situated outside the nation’s boundaries.
Said Holder: “Today’s announcement makes a significant step forward in our efforts to close Guantanamo and to bring to justice those individuals who have conspired to attack our nation and our interests abroad.”
The U.S. attorney general, a New Yorker, also said that there are 11 others at Guantanamo that will be tried by military commissions.
Those criticizing the decision did so because of security concerns and worries about baring state secrets.
The administration received strong rhetorical support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sen. Charles Schumer and former Sen. Hillary Clinton. The American Civil Liberties Union called the announcement “an enormous victory for the rule of law.”
However, Gov. David Paterson, while saying that he would do everything possible to keep New Yorkers safe, lamented that bringing the trial to the city was “a decision I would not have made.” He admitted that he had been in the loop for the past six months regarding the decision.
“This trial has the quality of being a political show-trial,” stated Ramsey Clark, co-founder of the International Action Center and a former U.S. attorney general under Lyndon B. Johnson. He tells the AmNews that one of his main concerns with having the trial in the city is that it would be almost impossible to find a juror who doesn’t know someone who lost a loved one on 9/11 or has lost a loved one themselves.
Clark, an advocate for civil and human rights, said if there was a case where a change of venue would be relevant, it is this one. “The last place in the United States where these defendants could get a fair trial is in lower Manhattan,” Clark said. Speculation abounds that the yet-to-be-named defense attorneys may argue for the change of venue. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber’s trial, was moved to Denver, Colo.
While security and traffic jams, and the overall safety of New Yorkers is important during the trial, analysts say the most compelling issue is the absence of precedence of international law in addressing acts of war committed by non-state actors out of uniform.
An analyst for Stratfor writes that because the Geneva Convention of 1949 leaves combatants such as Mohammed in legal limbo, states are free to deal with them as they wish. “[Holder has] opened up an extraordinary, complex can of worms,” stated the analyst.
The Stratfor opinion piece continues by saying the decision to try Mohammed in federal court “makes it clear that he was not a soldier acting in time of war, but a criminal.” The attorney general is committed to proving that Mohammed is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, while guaranteeing his constitutional rights as a non-U.S. citizen.
Holder responded, saying the message is that the U.S. giving these men a fair trial while upholding American values.
Observers argue that Mohammed’s six years in detention have already violated his right to a fair trial.
President Obama told reporters in Tokyo that the accused will be “subject to the most exacting demands of justice.”
According to Clark, the issue of a constitutional trial looms big. “I think the right place for this trial is in a U.S. court, and I believe the Geneva Convention will cover this trial,” Clark opined. He said that instruments such as the Geneva Convention does not freeze themselves in time and were constructed to move forward with issues of law. “I disagree with those who say the 1949 convention is not relevant to this case,” Clark said.
Another big issue facing prosecutors, according to observers, will be the one of torture. The Central Intelligence Agency has admitted to waterboarding Mohammed 183 times, a controlled drowning technique, before 2003, when the practice was said to have ended.
The ACLU has called for the Department of Justice to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate torture crimes under the Bush administration and to have Congress pass legislation to prevent a recurrence of the past violations.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYACLU, tells the AmNews that while her group welcomes the trials because it symbolizes America’s attempt to get justice–and “we are also very much aware of the collateral challenges that will run with the trials”–Lieberman said. She was referring to the subway stop and frisk program, which she called a “Ray Kelly Program” supposedly directly tied to homeland security and the war on terror.
The NYACLU took the Bloomberg administration to court to no avail to stop the subway stops because of the constitutional issue and because Blacks and Latinos were being stopped disproportionately.
“We will be monitoring to see if there is [unnecessary] racial profiling during the trial,” Lieberman said.