NPR logo Civil Rights Lawyers Welcome Holder Terror Trial Move

Civil Rights Lawyers Welcome Holder Terror Trial Move

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind, at time of his 2003 capture in Pakistan (left) and how he allegedly looked this summer in a reputed International Red Cross photo. AP Photo/ hide caption

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Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to try five alleged Sept. 11 conspirators in U.S. criminal courts was hailed Friday by their American lawyers and civil liberties activists as major step toward undoing damage to the nation's reputation caused by its treatment of terrorism suspects held in Guantanamo Bay.

"This is an enormous step forward in renewing the rule of law," Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union said during a conference call with reporters shortly after Holder's announcement.

The decision to try the alleged conspirators in New York City, part of the roll-out of the administration's effort to make good on its promise to close the prison at Gitmo, "puts us back on track, using our tried and true court system," Romero said.

But he and the lawyers also expressed disappointment that Holder decided to use controversial military commissions to try five additional high-value terrorism suspects, including the mastermind of the 2000 bombing in Yemen of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole. They are among 221 prisoners still being held in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The commissions remain flawed, Romero said, even with recent tweaks by Congress that give detainees better access to legal counsel than they had under the Bush administration, and limits evidence obtained through harsh interrogation tactics.

Says Norman Reimer of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers: "It is unfortunate that some will still be subjected to military commission proceedings...[that] fall short of what we should expect as Americans."

He suggested that the justice department has directed to military commissions suspects whose cases would be harder to make under the stricter evidence and due process rules of a U.S. criminal court.

The ACLU and Reimer's organization three years ago put together civilian defense teams to help represent Guantanamo Bay detainees who faced military commission trials, and have devoted hundreds of hours to seeking fair trials for the terrorism suspects.

Nina Ginsberg, civilian lawyer for Mustafa Ahmed Adam Al Hawsawi, an alleged organizer of the 9-11 attacks, said that Holder's decision to try the 9-11 conspirators in open federal courts will show "skeptical Americans and those around the world" that "people who are hated the most are given the same rights as those who are cherished famous and have a lot of money."

When asked how it feels personally to be representing suspects in the most deadly terrorism attack on American soil in history, lawyer Thomas Durkin, who represents Ramzi bin al-Shibh, one of the five men accused of plotting the 9-11 attacks, said: "Our personal feelings are not an issue whatsoever. Our commitment is to the rule of law."

And, he said, to defend the alleged terrorists "as vigorously as any other defendant in this country. And that's what we intend to do."