The decision by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (pictured) to prosecute self-proclaimed 9/11-mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York set off a major debate Friday over whether the move makes legal and practical sense.
Mohammed will face a jury trial in federal court in the Southern District of New York, only blocks away from the scene of the 2001 attack, where nearly 3,000 people lost their lives. "There were extraordinary crimes, and so we will seek maximum penalties," Holder said Friday in Washington, D.C. "I fully expect to direct prosecutors to seek the death penalty against each of the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators."
Four other individuals suspected of involvement in the terror attacks will also be tried in New York: Waleed bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi and Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali. The physical transfer of the detainees from the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to New York is not expected take place for several weeks because formal charges have not been filed. According to the AP, upon their arrival, the detainees will most likely be held in the bleak prison tower at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, which has housed some of the city's most high-profile criminals, including killers, terrorists, and, most recently Bernard Madoff, the Ponzi swindler.
A Risky Move in Pursuit of Justice
Holder's action is a step toward President Barack Obama's broader goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, which will test the president's argument that the suspects can be successfully held and tried on American soil. Some legal experts suggest that because Mohammed has been subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding -- simulated drowning -- any information gathered from him through such techniques might not be admissible in court.
Speaking in Tokyo after a summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, Obama expressed support for Holder's decision. "I am absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be subjected to the most exacting demands of justice," Obama said.
The president has said he wants to change the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who insisted that the Guantanamo detainees be held as enemy combatants in an extra-national facility with extra-legal status. But Obama's move to legitimize the pursuit of justice for the attacks by bringing Mohammed into the American legal system carries enormous risks. Unfortunately for the prosecution in this case, nothing short of conviction will be acceptable to much of the public; while Mohammed has nothing to lose.
The first thing that a smart defense lawyer would do is seek a change of venue, arguing that the defendants could not receive a fair trial in lower Manhattan.
'They Don't Deserve the Same Rights as Americans'
Ray Kelly, New York City's Chief of Police said it was "entirely appropriate" that the suspects be tried in the city.
"They are responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people right here in Manhattan, and I think they should be tried in the venue where they committed the crime," Kelly told reporters Friday. "That has always been the standard in our criminal justice system. I see it fitting and appropriate."
But Frank Siller, a firefighter whose brother was killed, said it is a horrible decision to bring the detainees to New York. "They're in Gitmo and they should stay there and be tried in military court," Siller told NY1. "They're not Americans and they don't deserve the same rights as Americans. They killed 3,000 people that day and they are still trying to kill us today."
On September 11, 2001, hijackers commandeered four commercial jets and flew two of them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center -- an international symbol of capitalism and American values. Another hijacked plane was flown into the Pentagon in Arlington, Va.; a fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after being retaken by passengers.
It was the worst act of terrorism in American history and immediately set the nation on a course that led to two wars, increased surveillance of citizens, and intense national soul-searching over civil liberties, the laws of war, and American values.
New York Has Terror-Trial Experience, Says Sen. Schumer
Mohammed has allegedly admitted to authorities that he is responsible for the attacks; he is said to have originally proposed the idea in 1996 to Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who is still at-large in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Mohammed has also allegedly admitted to training, funding and organizing the 9/11 hijackers.
Prosecutors in New York reportedly competed with officials from Virginia, where the Pentagon is located, for the chance to try the 9/11 suspects. The Southern District of New York has seen a number of terrorism-related cases in recent years. The courthouse, a classical edifice at the heart of lower Manhattan's municipal complex, is just blocks away from the World Trade Center site.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, (D-N.Y.), has argued that unlike other communities in the country, which have objected to receiving hardened detainees, New York has a lengthy history of holding terrorists and trying them in its courts. "Bottom line is we have had terrorists housed in New York before," Schumer said in March at the U.S. Capitol with other Democratic leaders. "They've been housed safely."
The Obama administration has pointed to the case of the 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef as an example of a case in which a suspected terrorist was safely tried, convicted, and imprisoned in the United States.
Decision to try 9/11 detainees in New York provokes heated debate