Guantanamo Judge Should Probe Whether 9/11 Guilty Pleas Are Voluntary
December 8, 2008
“What should have been a major victory in holding the 9/11 defendants accountable for terrible crimes has been tainted by torture and an unfair military commissions process. These five men are known to have been mistreated and tortured during their years in CIA custody, including the acknowledged waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.”
Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel

(Guantanamo Bay, December 8, 2008) - Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others announced that they plan to plead guilty to conspiring in the September 11 attacks and related crimes at a hearing before US military commissions at Guantanamo today. All five defendants face the death penalty.

"What should have been a major victory in holding the 9/11 defendants accountable for terrible crimes has been tainted by torture and an unfair military commissions process," said Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. "These five men are known to have been mistreated and tortured during their years in CIA custody, including the acknowledged waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed."

Prior to their transfer to the US military detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay in 2006, all five defendants were held for years in secret CIA detention. Earlier this year, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden acknowledged that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been subjected to "waterboarding" - a form of mock drowning that has been prosecuted as torture by the United States for more than 100 years. Other defendants are believed to have been subjected to other abusive interrogation methods such as extended sleep deprivation, the use of painful stress positions, and forced nudity, while in CIA custody.

Under the rules of the military commissions, a judge cannot accept a guilty plea unless he determines that the plea is voluntary and free of coercion.

"In light of the men's severe mistreatment and torture, the judge should require a full and thorough factual inquiry to determine whether or not these pleas are voluntary," Daskal said.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four others - Ali Abdul-Aziz Ali, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, and Walid bin Attash - were formally charged before the military commissions on June 5, 2008. All but Hawsawi have chosen to represent themselves, although they have accepted lawyers as advisors. As of September, all of the men except Bin al Shibh seemed to be cooperating with their legal counsel. Bin al-Shibh's lawyers have challenged his competency and are continuing to represent him until a decision on that issue is reached.

"Upon taking office, President Obama should dissolve the military commissions and move these cases to federal court, so that the outcome of the most important terrorism trials in the history of the United States will not be questioned," Daskal said.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all cases.