The accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks will be tried in a military tribunal and not in Manhattan federal court blocks from the World Trade Center site, officials said Monday.
The Justice Department’s announcement was a major reversal for the Obama administration, which had faced strong pressure to abandon its 2009 decision that it would seek to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators in civilian court downtown.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Congress has imposed restrictions on where Guantánamo detainees can be tried, and rather than fight those restrictions and delay the trial, he ordered prosecutors to dismiss the federal indictment in New York in favor of a military trial.
Holder emphasized that prosecutors had been “prepared to bring a powerful case” against the suspects and said he still believes a civilian trial would have been the best choice.
The 2009 announcement that the 9/11 suspects would be tried in New York was met with fierce opposition from many elected officials, families of victims and those who live and work in Lower Manhattan, who would have had to contend with several rings of heavy security for the months of the trial.
Julie Menin, chairwoman of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan, said Monday that the choice to back out of New York was an “outstanding victory.”
“Having 2,000 checkpoints, let alone one checkpoint, would have ruined the whole neighborhood. It would have affected small businesses and residents,” she said. “People are thrilled that we stood up and fought this.”
Some Sept. 11 family members also said the reversal was the right call.
“These should never have been civilian trials,” said Charles G. Wolf, who lost his wife in the trade center attack.
The decision is also a victory for Mayor Bloomberg, who supported the New York trial at first, but then reversed himself and came out against it, saying the cost of providing security would be too much for the city to bear. He had put the figure at $200 million a year, but never provided details on what that included.
At an event in the Bronx on Monday, Bloomberg welcomed the news.
“While we would have provided the security if we had to here in New York City, you know, being spared the expense is good for us,” Bloomberg said.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had also spoken out against trying the suspects in New York, saying at one point it would increase the threat of another terror attack.
“I think this probably works out better for all of us,” Kelly said Monday.
The federal government had promised it would pay back the city for security costs, but would not have compensated business owners or others who would have been inconvenienced by the trial.
The Alliance for Downtown New York also applauded the move for the trial to leave New York.
“The federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan was never a wise first choice as a venue for the trials,” said Robert R. Douglass, chairman. “It is situated near some of the most densely populated business addresses and residential neighborhoods in America, and at the heart of a regional transportation network through which hundreds of thousands of people pass each day.”
After pressure and opposition from Bloomberg and others, including Democrats, Holder shelved the plan last year, saying the White House was reviewing it.
“This is the final nail in the coffin of this wrongheaded decision,” said Sen. Charles Schumer.
Conservative Republicans had raised security concerns and staunchly opposed trials in civilian courts inside the United States for terrorism suspects.
U.S. Rep Peter King said after the DOJ announcement that the change is a “long-awaited step in the right direction.”
“Today’s reversal is yet another vindication of President Bush’s detention policies by the Obama Administration,” said the Long Island Republican, “and is welcome news to the families of the victims … who will finally see long-awaited justice.”
The Obama administration had said that both civilian courts and military commissions should be available for such trials, pointing to the fact that dozens of terrorism-related cases have been handled in civilian courts.
Critics of the administration’s initial approach also argued that trials in civilian courts run a greater risk of acquittals than in military courts because of rules of evidence and rights afforded to suspects.
Capt. John Murphy, chief prosecutor for the Office of Military Commissions, said in a statement after Holder’s announcement Monday that his office would soon swear charges against Mohammed and the four others accused in the 2001attack.
“I intend to recommend the charges be sent to a military commission for a joint trial,” he said.
Read the dismissed indictment unsealed against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators.