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Death penalty trial date set for alleged September 11 attackers

Alleged September 11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others held at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp will finally go to trial in 2021, almost 20 years after the devastating attack on the United States involving hijacked airliners.

A military judge set a January 2021 date for the start of the long-stalled war crimes trial of the five men being held at Guantanamo Bay on charges of planning and aiding the September 11 attacks, which led to a US invasion of and 18-year war in Afghanistan.

Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi are accused of planning and participating in the plot – allegedly hatched by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden – to hijack four airliners and crash them into New York City’s World Trade Center and buildings in Washington, DC.

Two of the planes struck the World Trade Center’s twin towers, another hit the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania killing nearly 3,000 people on September 11, 2001.

“We’ve been wanting a date for a very long time,” Terry Strada, whose husband Tom was killed in the attack, told the New York Times. “This is good news. I certainly hope nothing will happen between now and then to change this. The families have suffered long enough.”

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Judge Shane Cohen, an Air Force colonel, set the start date in a case that has been bogged down in pretrial litigation for years.

Cohen said the trial at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “will face a host of administrative and logistics challenges”.

The five will be the first to go on trial in the “military commissions” established to handle the “war on terror” detainees captured and sent to Guantanamo after September 11. 

The five were formally charged in 2012 with conspiracy, attacking civilians, murder in violation of the law of war, aircraft hijacking and terrorism.

The men were captured in Pakistan in 2002-2003 and moved to Guantanamo Bay prison after spending years in clandestine CIA detention facilities where they were tortured.

The CIA subjected Mohammed to waterboarding 183 times in 2003, which former US President George W Bush later said he personally authorised. Mohammed’s lawyers have argued that discussion of his torture is necessary for a free trial.

Karen Greenberg, director of the Center of National Security, said the suspects’ torture and their mental health conditions would be major factors in the trial considering they face the death penalty if convicted.

“What lies at the heart of this case is is it possible to bring this case with clean evidence – evidence that was not derived from torture,” Greenberg told Al Jazeera.

Some have questioned whether the trial will actually go forward as defence lawyers have said they will attempt to halt the proceedings, according to the Times. 

“For a January 2021 trial date to happen, the government would have to drop its obstructionism and produce a lot of important evidence and witnesses,” James G Connell III, Baluchi’s lead defence counsel, was quoted as saying.


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