U.S. defends N.Y. trials in 9/11 case

November 19, 2009|By Josh Meyer | Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — — The Obama administration strongly defended Wednesday its decision to try the alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in a civilian New York court, but faced criticism from Republican senators who called it a "perversion" of justice that will risk freeing some of the world's most notorious terrorists.

President Barack Obama supported such a trial in interviews with U.S. television networks before leaving Beijing for South Korea. Casting aside any pretense of assumption of innocence, Obama said those offended by the constitutional protections being given to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators ultimately won't find it "offensive at all when he's convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him."

But in Washington, some Republican lawmakers sparred with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. over his announcement Friday that he was transferring the case of the five men from the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a federal courthouse blocks from Ground Zero. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said the transfer to New York is proof the administration is wrongly "criminalizing" a war on terrorism in which those captured should be tried as enemy combatants in war crimes tribunals. Others said Mohammed will use a trial expected to be followed worldwide as a stage from which to spew anti-American rhetoric, and that it could make New York City a target for another terrorist strike.

The sharp exchanges at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee were an indication that opposition to such a trial is likely to intensify.

Several family members of those killed in the attacks on New York and Washington sat directly behind Holder and held up photographs of loved ones. A few cheered when Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., demanded to know how Holder could back up his prediction that the five men would be convicted.

Holder replied that he had told prosecutors that "failure is not an option."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, told Holder his response was "ludicrous," especially when one juror could sabotage the prosecution's case.

Public reaction to the prospect of the trial has been mixed. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly have supported the Obama administration, as have some victims groups. But some at the hearing Wednesday brought a foot-high stack of signatures that they said represented more than 100,000 New Yorkers who are demanding that Obama keep the men at Guantanamo.

"I don't feel that they belong on American soil," said Theresa Regan, whose husband, Donald, a firefighter, died at the World Trade Center. "They took my husband's rights away, and they don't deserve to have the kind of rights they will get in a U.S. court."

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