While the world watches new acts of terror unfold almost daily, the incredibly slow process of pursuing justice in a military court against some of the alleged plotters of the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States slogs forward.
Americans may be forgiven if they have forgotten that some of the prisoners still at Guantanamo Bay Navy Base on Cuba are defending themselves against charges related to the 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
But, in fact, five of the inmates — Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (reported to be the mastermind behind the attacks by al-Qaida), Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi — have been in and out of military court there for years.
A two-week pre-trial session wrapped up recently, with the next court hearings set for early next month. And although it may seem astonishing that things could take this long, this is a remarkably complicated case and the stakes are high. So far the chief prosecutor, Mark Martins, and the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, appear to be overseeing the case conscientiously and carefully.
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In a recent statement, Martins offered perspective on what’s been happening and why things have taken this long. He noted that the parties had submitted 193 “substantive” motions in writing and orally argued 46 motions. The military commission conducting the proceedings has heard nearly 69 hours of testimony from 27 witnesses, and the parties have filed 191 exhibits and more than 100 declarations.
“More than 310,000 pages of unclassified material comprising the government’s case against the accused, as well as material required to be disclosed to the defense under the government’s affirmative discovery obligations, have been provided to each of the defense teams,” Martins wrote. “... This information, while never meant to imply that justice can be reduced to numbers, nonetheless reflects methodical and deliberate movement toward trial.”
Some of the sluggish nature of the trial can be laid at the feet of the defendants. Attash tied things up arguing that he didn’t want to be represented by the attorney appointed for him. Judge Pohl ruled against him on that matter. Defendants also have argued against female prison guards touching them.
In addition, there was an 18-month delay because of an FBI investigation of defense attorneys accused of conflict of interest, plus delays over whether defense teams would sign a memorandum of understanding about classified information and over whether Binalshibh was competent to stand trial. The defense was found not to have a conflict of interest, defense teams eventually signed the memorandum, and Binalshibh was found competent.
Members of 9/11 families have followed all of this closely, and it has caused pain and suffering beyond the initial loss of love ones. But the goal has been to offer a fair trial despite the difficult circumstances. If this military court can achieve that goal, it will be one more stand for the rule of law prevailing over those who pursue their goals through force and intimidation.