US Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] announced Monday that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] and four other co-conspirators will be tried before a military commission [statement] for their roles in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Holder, who wanted the accused be tried before a federal civilian court [JURIST report], referred the cases to the Department of Defense (DOD) [official website] after Congress imposed a series of restrictions [JURIST report] barring the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the US. Holder refused to delay the trial any longer for the sake of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and their families, explaining that the restrictions are not likely to be repealed in the immediate future. While deciding to proceed with military commissions, Holder defended the federal judiciary, saying:
Too many people ... have expressed doubts about our time-honored and time-tested system of justice. That's not only misguided, it's wrong. The fact is, federal courts have proven to be an unparalleled instrument for bringing terrorists to justice. Our courts have convicted hundreds of terrorists since September 11, and our prisons safely and securely hold hundreds today, many of them serving long sentences. There is no other tool that has demonstrated the ability to both incapacitate terrorists and collect intelligence from them over such a diverse range of circumstances as our traditional justice system. Our national security demands that we continue to prosecute terrorists in federal court, and we will do so. Our heritage, our values, and our legacy to future generations also demand that we have full faith and confidence in a court system that has distinguished this nation throughout its history.Also on Monday, a judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of New York [official website] granted prosecutors' motion to dismiss and unsealed the indictment [text, PDF] of the co-conspirators, allowing the case to be transferred to the DOD. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] has spoken out against the administration's decision [press release], saying that the military commissions system is "rife with constitutional and procedural problems and undermines the fundamental American values that have made us a model throughout the world for centuries."
The Obama administration changed its position despite repeated appeals from rights groups to utilize civilian courts over military commissions for the trials of suspected terrorists. Last March, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism Martin Scheinin [official website] called on the Obama administration to hold civilian trials [JURIST report] for Mohammed and other suspected terrorists saying that the military commissions system is fatally flawed and cannot be reformed. Earlier that month, the ACLU released a full-page advertisement in the New York Times urging President Barack Obama [JURIST report] to uphold his pledge to try 9/11 suspects in civilian criminal court. That release came just days after White House advisers announced they were considering recommending [JURIST report] that Mohammed be tried in a military court rather than through the civilian criminal justice system. In an interview last July, Holder stated that the main goal of the administration is to hold the people responsible [JURIST report] for 9/11 accountable in the most effective way possible. Holder reiterated his support for holding the trials in civilian courts [JURIST report], saying that the criminal justice system has been proven an effective location for terrorism trials and that excluding civilian courts as a possible tool in fighting terrorism would ultimately weaken the nation's security. Holder announced in November 2009 that Mohammed would be tried in a civilian court [JURIST report] in Manhattan, drawing intense criticism and leading the Obama administration to reconsider the decision.