WASHINGTON (AFP) — In the first step towards trying the alleged plotters behind the devastating September 11, 2001 attacks, five men including the accused mastermind will be arraigned June 5 before a US military judge in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Nearly seven years after the attacks and at least five years after their capture, Pakistan-born Kuwaiti Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the purported key 9/11 planner, and four others will formally be charged with murder, terrorism and other war crimes, launching the process of trying them under special military commissions at the US naval prison at Guantanamo.
All face possible death sentences, but the question of whether the trials will ever get underway and how long they could last still looms darkly over the process.
To be arraigned alongside Mohammed are Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, a Saudi Arabian; Ramzi Binalshibh of Yemen; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Mohammed's nephew also from Kuwait; and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi, of Saudi Arabia.
The five were arrested between 2002 and 2003 and held for interrogation for several years in secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons outside the United States. In 2006 they were transferred to Guantanamo, but only in early May were they referred for trial by the convening authority of the military commissions set up to try US "war on terror" detainees.
In the June 5 hearing judge Ralph Kohlmann, a US marines colonel, will formally read the charges against them and allow each to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty, or postpone the plea.
The Pentagon expects some 60 journalists to be on hand for this relatively open proceeding, but issues involving the lawyers' tightly restricted access to the defendants already raises questions about the process.
Until charges were first officially set in February, the detainees were unable to meet with lawyers, as the military had designated the men themselves with top secret classifications.
Since then the combination of the official secrecy surrounding the government's cases and the logistics of travelling to Guantanamo have meant limited meetings with their military and civilian lawyers.
Faced with such barriers defense lawyers had asked for a continuance, or postponement, of the arraignment, but on Thursday Judge Kohlmann rejected the request.
"The commission recognizes that there are many logistic and legal issues that will need to be addressed in this case. It is precisely because of the anticipated complexity of this case, that it is important that the process get under way," he said.
Of the five the be tried, Mohammed is the most prominent, having allegedly confessed to planning and organizing the 9/11 hijacking of four US commercial jets which crashed into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon in Washington, and a rural field in Pennsylvania, killing 2,974 people, not including the 19 hijackers.
His trial could become snagged on legal issues surrounding the CIA's admission that it subjected Mohammed to waterboarding, the interrogation technique simulating drowning that is widely considered torture.
The hearing will take place in a purpose-built courtroom in Guantanamo, constructed in a way that will allow the judge to prevent unauthorized people from hearing any official secrets that may be disclosed in the trials.
Even so, the whole process could grind to a halt at any time. The special military tribunals, set up just after the 9/11 attacks, have faced a series of legal challenges that saw them ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2006.
They were then reestablished with a firmer legal footing by Congress last year.
But a related case dealing with US law's applicability in Guantanamo that is expected to be decided by the Supreme Court in June could spark new challenges to the tribunals.
Moreover, the trial process could be interrupted by a change in the White House. The three politicians seeking to replace President George W. Bush next January -- Republican John McCain and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- have all said they plan to shut down Guantanamo.
"The government is very anxious to get these cases moving forward, possibly to present the next administration with a fait accompli," said Eugene Fidell, a military justice expert.
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