WASHINGTON -- Military prosecutors announced murder and conspiracy charges against six Guantanamo detainees accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks and said yesterday that they will seek the death penalty in each case.
The charges are the first against defendants accused of direct participation in the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. Osama bin Laden, the ultimate mastermind and financier of 9/11, was not charged.
The detailed charges unveiled yesterday were the first step in what officials acknowledged will be a long and contentious legal drama. If the charges are approved, they will be heard in an unusual joint military trial at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The court proceedings will not be televised, but the public will be allowed access to the courtroom for most of the sessions, a Pentagon lawyer said. The lawyer, Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, said it will take at least until summer and probably longer for the trial to get under way, as prosecutors and defense attorneys struggle to clear away a tangle of legal issues, including the admissibility of evidence obtained under torture.
The most senior suspect in detention, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, has confessed to planning several terrorist operations including the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But the CIA director, Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, acknowledged last week that the agency used such interrogation techniques as "waterboarding," which creates the feeling of drowning, on Mohammed.
At least one other defendant, Mohammed al-Qahtani, has asserted he was subjected to abusive interrogation.
Under military rules, the prosecution charges will be reviewed by a senior military judge to determine whether there is probable cause to refer the charges to trial. If so, the case will be heard by a jury of at least 12 military officers.
Issues such as the admissibility of evidence obtained under torture "will be decided in the courtroom among the prosecutors and defense in front of the military judge," Hartmann said. He is the legal adviser to the Pentagon's military commissions, which were authorized by Congress in 2006 to hear terrorism-related cases.
Briefing reporters at the Pentagon yesterday, Hartmann insisted the accused will receive the legal rights "that are virtually identical to the rights we provide to our military members, our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who fight on the battlefield."
Unlike the senior officers tried by the U.S. and its allies at Nuremberg after World War II, he said, the terrorism defendants will have full right of appeal, including to U.S. civilian courts and ultimately to the Supreme Court.
Represented by military lawyers, they also will have the right to hire civilian lawyers at their own expense, to cross-examine witnesses, to obtain evidence and to call their own witnesses - potentially including bin Laden.
These and other rights "are specifically designed to ensure that every defendant receives a fair trial, consistent with American standards of justice," Hartmann said. "The accused are and will remain innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
But the military justice procedures sit uneasily with some Americans touched by the 9/11 tragedy.
"I'm very concerned about the waterboarding and other methods that may have been used," said Patrice Pascual, a Silver Spring resident who had close friends aboard American Airlines Flight 77 that was crashed into the southwest side of the Pentagon.
"I think back to the people we continue to mourn who were rational, principled people who lost their lives in a horrific crime but who would never have wanted to see the dismantling of the legal system or some of the other outcomes that have come from pursuing vengeance," Pascual said.
"All the secrecy and waterboarding, I think, has put this country into a kind of barbaric stance," she said.
In a statement yesterday, Human Rights Watch called for the trials of the six to be moved into U.S. federal court.
"It is time for the United States to start rebuilding its moral authority and credibility," Jennifer Daskal, the organization's senior counterterrorism counsel, said in the statement.
"Possibly putting someone to death based on evidence obtained through waterboarding, or after prolonged periods of sleep deprivation while being forced into painful stress positions, is not the answer," she said.
Besides Mohammed, the accused are: Walid bin Attash, alleged to have helped train and prepare the hijackers; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who ran the al-Qaida cell in Hamburg, Germany, and who was unable to get a visa into the United States to join the other hijackers; and Ali Abdul al-Aziz, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi and Mohammed al-Qahtani, all of whom are said to have played critical supporting roles in what the conspirators called "the plane operation."
According to an 88-page charge sheet, which lists the name of every 9/11 victim, prosecutors say Mohammed met with bin Laden in 1996 in Afghanistan to outline a plan to crash hijacked airliners into buildings in the United States, a plan that bin Laden ultimately approved.
The hijackers were trained to slit passengers' throats with knives by practicing on sheep, goats and camels, according to the charges.
The military commissions, revised by Congress after the Supreme Court ruled the initial version unconstitutional, have formally charged only four alleged terrorists.