December 22, 2008
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A U.S. human rights group on Monday called for a stay of all war-crimes proceedings against five Guantánamo Bay prisoners charged with orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks until after President-elect Barack Obama takes office.
Lawyers for the New York-based Human Rights First said they filed the friend-of-the-court brief because military prosecutors are likely to seek another hearing in Guantánamo’s highest-profile case before Obama takes over Jan. 20.
“There is no legitimate reason to expend judicial resources prosecuting a capital case under a system that will be obsolete before the matter can be tried,” the group’s brief said.
Obama opposes the military war-crimes trials and has pledged to close the prison on a Navy base in southeast Cuba, which holds 250 men.
The defendants in the Sept. 11 case wrote a letter on Nov. 4 — the day Obama was elected president — saying they wanted to confess, presumably to plead guilty and face the death penalty. At least two of the men, including the self-described mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, have said they want to be executed to achieve martyrdom.
But the formal confessions were delayed when a judge ruled this month that two of the defendants couldn’t enter pleas until the court determines their mental competency. The other three said they would also wait.
The judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley, has ordered lawyers to advise him by Jan. 4 whether the Pentagon can apply the death penalty without a jury trial.
Full text of Press Release:
For Immediate Release: December 22, 2008
Contact: Krista Minteer (212) 845-5207
Human Rights Group Requests Stay in KSM’s Military Commission Case
New York–Human Rights First filed a friend-of-the-court brief today, requesting a stay of proceedings in the military commission case of the alleged 9/11 conspirators, United States v. Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, et al. until after President-elect Barack Obama takes office. Obama has repeatedly criticized the military commissions, and he has vowed to close Guantánamo and try suspected terrorists in ordinary criminal or military courts.
The amicus brief was filed in response to a request by Muhammed and his co-defendants, made during a court appearance on December 8th, to withdraw all legal motions and plead guilty. The military judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley adjourned the case temporarily to allow for mental competency evaluations of two of the defendants and for the government to brief whether the Military Commissions Act permits guilty pleas in a capital case. But the military prosecutors are continuing to press forward with the case, and they are likely to seek another hearing before President-elect Obama takes office. Three of the five detainees, including Muhammed, are representing themselves and have resisted working with the military lawyers assigned to assist them.
“The Bush administration’s misguided policies of prolonged detention, abusive treatment, and unjust military commission procedures at Guantánamo have undercut the President’s ability to bring those responsible for 9/11 to justice,” says Elisa Massimino, Executive Director and CEO of Human Rights First. “President-elect Obama has publicly committed to moving ahead with transparent trials in proceedings recognized around the world as reliable and just. Given the extraordinary nature of these proceedings, he should be given the opportunity to make good on his pledge.”
“[T]here is no legitimate reason to expend judicial resources prosecuting a capital case under a system that will be obsolete before the matter can be tried,” the Human Rights First brief states. “[B]oth the appearance and the substance of justice require that the accused be afforded all procedural safeguards that the new administration deems warranted for the prosecution of such cases.” In addition, if the guilty pleas are accepted, other complex legal issues may arise, including whether jeopardy has attached and whether future prosecutions may be precluded.
Human Rights First advocates prosecuting terrorism cases in ordinary federal courts. In May 2008, the group released In Pursuit of Justice: Prosecuting Terrorism Cases in the Federal Courts, the most thorough examination to date of federal international terrorism prosecutions. In its examination of more than 120 such cases, the report found federal courts have proven to be highly adaptive and flexible in delivering justice in complex terrorism cases, casting doubt on the necessity of competing mechanisms proposed to supplant them since 9-11.
Human Rights First has been one of a handful of NGOs invited to observe the proceedings at Guantánamo Bay. In this capacity, Human Rights First representatives have taken more than 25 trips since 2004.