SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The Pentagon said Wednesday it is ready to resume a trial at Guantanamo Bay for the acknowledged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and four other men, more than two years after President Barack Obama halted the case in an ultimately failed effort to prosecute them in a civilian court.
A Department of Defense legal official known as the convening authority has approved trying the five together on capital charges that include terrorism and murder, making them eligible for the death penalty if convicted. They are expected to be arraigned in May before a military judge at the U.S. base in Cuba.
Prosecutors had filed the charges last May and there was little doubt that the convening authority would refer the case to a military tribunal for trial. But lawyers had hoped that two of the men would be tried separately on non-capital charges because they are accused of relatively minor roles in the plot.
The five being charged include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who admitted during a military hearing to being the "mastermind" of the terrorist attacks that sent hijacked commercial airliners slamming into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people in 2001.
Mohammed had said at the start of his first trial that he intended to plead guilty and his four co-defendants indicated they would abandon their defense as well. But after a series of pretrial hearings the case was put on hold when the administration decided it wanted to try them in civilian court in the United States.
Congress fought the administration's effort to transfer Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S., forcing Obama to reverse course on trying prisoners in civilian courts and preventing him from closing the prison.
The president and Congress have amended the tribunals, known as military commissions, but defense lawyers and human rights groups still say the system favors the prosecution, with a hand-picked jury and judge who are all military officers, and including rules that prevent a public airing of the harsh treatment endured by prisoners such as Mohammed, who was subjected to water-boarding and other forms of interrogation while held by the CIA.
"The Obama Administration is making a terrible mistake by prosecuting the most important terrorism trials of our time in a second-tier system of justice," said Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The military commissions were set up to achieve easy convictions and hide the reality of torture, not to provide a fair trial."
The other four prisoners are Waleed bin Attash, who allegedly ran an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan and researched flight simulators and timetables; Ramzi Binalshibh, who allegedly helped find flight schools for the hijackers; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, who is accused of helping nine of the hijackers travel to the United States and sending them $120,000 for expenses and flight training; and Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, who is accused of helping the hijackers get money, Western clothing, traveler's checks and credit cards.
James Connell, a lawyer for Aziz Ali, who is also known as Ammar al-Baluchi and is a nephew of Mohammed, said he believed that his client and al-Hawsawi should be tried separately on non-capital charges because they helped with the logistics of the attacks but had no direct role in planning or carrying them out. He said people accused of such crimes would not typically face the death penalty in a U.S. civilian court.
"This attempt to expand the reach of the death penalty to people who neither killed nor planned to kill is another example of the second class justice of the military commissions," Connell said.