By Olivier Knox (AFP) – Nov 18, 2009
WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama, defending plans to try accused September 11 author Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court, predicted Wednesday that he would be convicted and executed.
And US Attorney General Eric Holder assured lawmakers that prosecutors know "failure is not an option" and that Sheikh Mohammed would not be freed even if acquitted by a jury in New York, a city still scarred by the 2001 attacks.
Obama, speaking to NBC television during a trip to Asia, said that anger and security worries over the planned civilian trial would fall away "when he's convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him."
In a separate exchange with CNN, Obama, who insisted he was not prejudging the case, scoffed at the idea "that these terrorists possess some special powers that prevent us from presenting evidence against them, locking them up and exacting swift justice."
The US president also explicitly acknowledged for the first time that he will not meet the January 22, 2010 deadline he decreed on his second day in office for closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.
"We had unexpected difficulties in trying to reach that goal," Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee, adding that he hoped to overcome "the biggest problem" by finding destinations this year for detainees cleared for release.
With angry relatives of some September 11 victims looking on, pale commemorative ribbons pinned to their lapels, Holder defended his decision to have Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-plotters face trial in New York.
"Failure is not an option. These are cases that have to be won. I don't expect that we will have a contrary result," said Holder. "We need not cower in the face of this enemy."
Critics have warned that civilian trials will give the accused more rights and that Holder is setting a precedent that could hamper how the US military gets intelligence from suspected terrorists captured overseas.
"I believe this decision is dangerous. I believe it's misguided. I believe it is unnecessary," said Senator Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the committee. "The correct way to try him is by military tribunal."
The five men face trial at a courthouse just blocks from Ground Zero, where thousands lost their lives after Al-Qaeda extremists flew hijacked airliners into the two World Trade Center towers.
Relatives of victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, many with badges bearing the name and photograph of their slain loved one, denounced Holder's decision outside the hearing room.
"This decision is not thoughtless, because a lot of thought went into it, but it is mindless," said David Beamer, whose son Todd is hailed as a hero for battling the hijackers aboard United Flight 93, which crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
"To put us through this again is unconscionable," said Geraldine Davie, whose daughter Amy O'Doherty, 23, was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center.
Holder rejected some of the principle objections to his decision, denying that a civilian trial would pose a security risk, reveal secret US information, or give Sheikh Mohammed a platform to preach extreme anti-US messages.
"I'm not scared of what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has to say at trial, and no one else needs to be afraid either," he said.
Holder also defended his decision to used civilian courts for September 11 suspects even as he pursues military tribunals for some suspected authors of the October 2000 bombing attack on the USS Cole off the Yemeni coast.
"By bringing prosecutions in both our courts and military commissions, by seeking the death penalty, by holding these terrorists responsible for their actions, we are finally taking ultimate steps towards justice. That is why I made this decision," he said.
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