RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is in Karachi, Pakistan. I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West.
It's taken nearly seven years, but today, five men accused of plotting the September 11th terror attacks are arraigned at the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Among the group is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the attacks. He has not been seen in public since his arrest in Pakistan more than five years ago. NPR's Jackie Northam is at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She joins us now. Good morning.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And Jackie, help us to understand the cases against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other defendants.
NORTHAM: Well, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh - he's a Yemeni citizen - Walid bin Attash, Ali Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi. Today, each of the detainees faces 2,973 counts of murder, Renee, and that's one for each victim of the 9-11 plot, as well as charges of terrorism and hijacking. Today, the men will only hear the nature of the charges against them. They'll be told of their right to an attorney, and then they'll have a chance to enter a plea. They do face a death penalty if convicted for these charges. You know, Renee, we've seen other trials here at Guantanamo over the past few years, and they'll all sort of been bit players, men who have had sort of a marginal role in al-Qaida or the so-called war on terror. But the five men that are going to appear in court today are believed to be the real thing. The US military considers them high value detainees, and they're suspected of being important players in the al-Qaida network, as well as allegedly helping plan and implement the 9-11 attacks. And all of them have been held and interrogated in secret CIA prisons overseas for years before they were brought here to Guantanamo in 2006.
MONTAGNE: And, Jackie, there have been allegations that the men were tortured in those overseas prisons. Will that affect their cases?
NORTHAM: These allegations haven't come from the military defense lawyers. They're not allowed to talk about the prisoners' confinement or anything that these five men might say or have gone through. However, the CIA has conceded that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded while held at one of these secret overseas prisons, and waterboarding is an interrogation technique that simulates drowning. The whole issue, though, of evidence obtained through coercive interrogation techniques, torture, will likely come up as these trials proceed. And what will be interesting to see is whether is will be allowed into evidence and what the detainee has to say about it, whether that will be classified or not, and that is solely up to the judge in these cases.
MONTAGNE: Generally speaking, in the years since 9-11, the legal system established to try al-Qaida and other suspected terrorists has been fraught with problems. Are many challenges to that system expected?
NORTHAM: In these cases, certainly, yes. This type of military tribunal was created solely to try terrorism suspects here at Guantanamo Bay. The Pentagon says this is an extremely fair system, but as you suggest, it has been riddled with problems and delays and a lot of controversy and challenges. The prosecution in these cases say they expect robust arguments, but already, the defense has asked that the cases be dismissed. They say the prosecution is politically motivated, and that these cases are being rushed in order to influence the upcoming US presidential elections.
MONTAGNE: What about family members of the victims of 9-11? Are they there?
NORTHAM: No, they're not. In fact, there was a bit of a controversy about that. The Pentagon had chosen one women whose husband was killed in the 9-11 attacks, and it turns out she's a proponent of these commissions, these trials. And some of the other family members from, you know, 9-11 victims didn't think that she was the best person to send to witness these trials. They don't agree with the nature of these particular tribunals. And so the Pentagon had to nix the idea. The woman is not coming down, and they said it was a mistake, and that next time they'll probably institute a lottery. They're also going to set up secure facilities in US military bases so families can watch the proceedings stateside in the future.
MONTAGNE: So it's just the arraignment today. When would trials be expected to begin?
NORTHAM: The trial is expected to begin September 15th, but none of these proceedings have ever gone according to schedule because of challenges to the system. We'll just have to wait and see if that's when we actually do come back to court.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Jackie Northam speaking to us from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Thanks.
NORTHAM: Thank you very much, Renee.
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