Guards escort a prisoner at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in 2002. (Mario Tama / Getty Images )
Early Saturday morning in a courtroom inside the highly guarded detainee prison at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, five of the alleged top plotters in the Sept. 11 attacks will speak for the first time under a new Obama administration plan to hold them accountable under military tribunals for the worst terrorist strikes in America.
It will be a test for the prisoners, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, of whether to plead guilty or not guilty at the arraignment hearing -- and whether to use the occasion as a platform to denounce the United States and call for more terrorist attacks around the world.
But in a larger sense the hearing, which kicks off the long-awaited military trial of the so-called Gitmo 5, will be a test of Obama himself, who in 2008 pledged to close the island prison and to try the five defendants in a civilian courtroom setting. He was unsuccessful on both counts. Now, what unfolds in Cuba over the next several months could weigh heavily on the upcoming presidential campaign.
A group of civil rights activists, angered that Obama did not make good on his earlier promises, plans to attend the hearing and again voice strong opposition to the tribunal process. They worry that the military system will quickly convict the five detainees, turning them into martyrs in the eyes of Muslims.
“The administration claims that its military commission rules have now been improved to ensure a fair and credible trial,” Douglass Cassel, a University of Notre Dame law professor and humanitarian law expert, said this week. “But outside the United States, who will view a U.S. military trial of our 'enemy' as credible?”
Also at the hearing will be a contingent of Sept. 11 survivors and relatives of the 3,000 who died, measuring with their own eyes those charged with hurting them and expressing their own opinions on how they should be dealt with.
After President George W. Bush left office in January 2009, the new Obama White House found itself without the political backing to close the Cuban prison.
Then a plan by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to move the trial to the federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, in the shadow of ground zero, was scuttled after an unexpected uproar from political leaders of both parties. They said it would be an affront to those who died and were wounded at the World Trade Center, and terribly expensive to provide the security to protect New York from another terrorist attack while the trial was underway.
Obama, meanwhile, has made some significant changes in how military commissions will be handled.
They prohibit the use of evidence obtained through torture or other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Mohammed himself was reportedly waterboarded 183 times at a CIA "black site" before he was shipped to Guantanamo Bay. In addition, lawyers for the accused are allowed access only to summaries of classified information against their clients, and not the detailed transcripts and underlying reports used to prepare them.
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