Accused 9/11 plotters reportedly in talks over deal to avoid death penalty trial

New York Times reports talks under way for plea agreement that could bring an end to one of biggest criminal cases in US history

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants accused of planning the 9/11 attacks are reportedly in talks with US prosecutors over a potential plea deal that would see them plead guilty in exchange for avoiding the death penalty.

The New York Times reported that negotiations are under way for a possible plea agreement that could bring to an end what is arguably the biggest criminal case in US history. The five defendants were first charged in 2008 with plotting or logistically supporting the terrorist attacks that led to the murder of almost 3,000 people in New York’s Twin Towers, the Pentagon in Washington, and in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Pre-trial procedures under the so-called military commissions that were especially devised for the terror suspects held at Guantánamo Bay have been going on for more than a decade. But they have been consistently bogged down in technical and ethical disputes, foremost of which has been the long-running debate over whether the defendants can ever receive a fair trial given the torture to which they were subjected.

The five defendants are: Mohammed, who by his own account was the mastermind of 9/11; Mohammed’s nephew Ammar al-Baluchi; Walid bin Attash, who is alleged to have helped train two of the 19 hijackers; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, accused of organizing logistics in the attack; and Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, alleged to have arranged financing.

All five men were subjected to torture techniques euphemistically referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques” in secret CIA prisons or “black sites”.

Mohammed was subjected to waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, 183 times.

Details of the harrowing torture inflicted on Baluchi by CIA interrogators at a black site known as the Salt Pit outside Kabul surfaced this week in a new court filing. An official report by the CIA’s inspector general recounted how the detainee was repeatedly slammed against a plywood wall as a form of training for new “interrogation students”.

Negotiations over a possible guilty plea are likely to take some time, the New York Times reported. Were a deal finally reached, it could have significant consequences, not only for the five defendants but for the future of Guantánamo itself.

One of the key demands raised by the prisoners in a joint submission, the newspaper reported, is that they be allowed to serve the entirety of their sentences at Guantánamo, the military prison established at a US naval base in Cuba after 9/11. The prisoners are allowed to pray and eat collectively at the camp – privileges that might be withheld them were they transferred to maximum security prisons in mainland US, where solitary confinement is the norm.

That in turn might involve the US government agreeing to keep Guantánamo open for decades to come, given the life sentences without any chance of parole that would almost certainly be meted out for Mohammed and at least some of the other defendants. Joe Biden, like Barack Obama before him, has expressed a desire to close the prison, though the task has so far proved elusive.

Any plea agreement would also require sensitive handling both politically and in terms of the thousands of family members of 9/11 victims, some of whom have been vocal in demanding the death chamber for their loved ones’ murderers.


Ed Pilkington in New York

The GuardianTramp

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