Sept. 11 Trial To Resume At Guantanamo

The Pentagon approved charges against the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men, starting a 30 day clock before they must appear to answer the charges. The prosecutor will seek the death penalty if they are convicted. Audie Cornish talks to Dina Temple-Raston for more.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A development today in the case against five men accused of orchestrating the September 11th attacks. The Pentagon announced that the trial at Guantanamo Bay will resume next month, and that the prosecutor will seek the death penalty if the men are convicted.

The 9/11 trial is likely to be the most important held by the Military Commissions at Guantanamo, and it will be as much a test of the commission system as it is a trial of the five men allegedly implicated in the deadly attacks.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us to explain what this development means, and to give us some sense of what'll happen next. And first, Dina, what more can you tell us about what happened today?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, what happened today is that something called a convening authority, which is a little like a grand jury in the military commission system, essentially agreed that there is enough evidence against these five men to allow the case to go forward and go to trial.

And the chief prosecutor had submitted the charges months ago. And he's kind of like a U.S. attorney in the sense that he lays out his case to this convening authority, and then this convening authority decides if the case is strong enough to take the next step. This convening authority, which actually is just one person, a retired admiral, looked at the case, and he said: OK, we should go ahead.

SIEGEL: And with the convening authority accepting the charges, is this some sort of clock start ticking here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly, a clock starts ticking. Basically, under the military commission rules at Guantanamo, the defendants in the case have exactly 30 days to appear once the charges are referred, which is what happened today. So we're likely to see Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other defendants in a courtroom in Guantanamo at the beginning of May.

So in just a couple of weeks' time, hundreds of reporters from all over the world are going to be descending on Guantanamo wanting to witness this.

SIEGEL: And it'll be Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and who else on trial?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, one of the men on trial, his name is Ali Abdul Aziz Ali. He's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's nephew. And also at the defense table are going to be two Yemenis, a man named Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Walid bin Attash, and then the last person is a Saudi named Mustafa al-Hawsawi.

The five men are facing a long list of charges, including murder in violation of the law of war, attacking civilians, attacking civilian objects, hijacking aircraft, and all five them were held in secret CIA prisons before they were transferred to Guantanamo in 2006. So how they were treated and the extensive waterboarding that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was subjected to are likely going to be huge issues in the trial.

SIEGEL: Yes. Dina, give us a little background here on the case itself and how we got to this point.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the 911 trial has been a bit of a political football. The Bush administration had wanted to try the 9/11 defendants in a military court. And then their trial was suspended when President Obama came into office. As part of his efforts to close Guantanamo Bay Prison, he wanted to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the others in a civilian court in New York.

But there was so much such congressional and local opposition to that, that about this time last year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he was reluctantly going to send them back to the Military Commissions. And that's where we find ourselves now.

SIEGEL: Yes. And this is really going to be the first real, high-visibility trial for these new Military Commissions, and a big test for the system?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Precisely. Well, I mean, we had the early stages of the U.S.S. Cole trial a couple of months ago. And, in fact, there are some more motions in that case that are going to be heard next week. But in terms of the trial that everybody is watching, the 9/11 trial is it. And how this case turns out, really, is going to be the yardstick by which these military commissions will be judged.

The Obama administration says that they've been reformed. This is going to be the test as to whether or not they really have been. And the Obama administration has said over and over again that these trials down in Guantanamo were going to be as fair as civilian trials. And this 9/11 trial - so high visibility, everybody around the world will be watching it - this is where they're going to actually prove that.

SIEGEL: Dina, one other point about people all over the world actually watching this. You said hundreds of reporters will descend on Guantanamo. Will reporters actually be able to see the proceedings?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, yes. But that's a qualified yes. It depends if something secret suddenly happens, then they sort of block out the sound. But there actually are rows of seats in the back of the courtroom behind bulletproof glass so we can see virtually everything that's going on.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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