Guantanamo injustice

Our view: A legal tangle is likely to bring a terrorism trial to an inconclusive end and open a more honorable path to a resolution

December 12, 2008

Having five accused killers agree to plead guilty would be a welcome outcome in most any criminal case - convictions are in hand, prosecutors avoid a costly trial, and victims' families are assured some closure. But the United States of America vs. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed et al is not just any case. Mr. Mohammed and four others are the defendants in the only military tribunal convened since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The government's detention of them - at secret overseas prisons and at the Guantanamo Bay military base - and its prosecution of them underscore the Bush administration's perversion of American jurisprudence in the name of the war on terror.

The defendants include the alleged chief mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. They may be the most notorious of the 250 Guantanamo detainees, but most of the others are held as enemy combatants, despite little or no credible evidence, in a prison that should be shut down. The Mohammed case is complicated by the harsh interrogation techniques that high-ranking Justice Department lawyers approved, even though they were tantamount to torture.

As self-proclaimed key participants in the 9/11 attacks, the men should be tried in a court of law, but the government's mishandling of them raises serious concerns about whether they would be convicted in a federal court.

Their offer to plead guilty this week during a pretrial hearing was the latest bizarre turn that raised more thorny legal questions over their fate and eligibility for the death penalty, which then led Mr. Mohammed to withdraw the request. It's in his interest to die at the hands of the U.S. government and become a martyr for his ruthless cause. The case is expected to drag on into the new year, but after the inauguration, President Barack Obama should put a stop to this circus and order the Justice Department to try these men in a U.S. court.

The other Guantanamo detainees should be released to their home countries - Portugal said yesterday it would take some who can't be repatriated - or charged in the U.S., and Mr. Obama should make good on his promise to close the detention center. Only then can America begin to restore its reputation as a defender of human rights, democratic values and the rule of law.

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