Khalid Sheikh Mohammeds promises to be the trial of the century. Three thousand victims of a single conspiracy equals the death toll of the entire Troubles. The scene-set recalls an earlier age in Britain when justice seemed less complicated. In the same manner encountered over the release of al-Megrahi, Americans take a more robust view of justice and terrorism. From the president downwards, vengeance and punishment are unapologetically referred to as justice. And lest there be any doubt, the Attorney General of this liberal administration is calling for the death penalty.Almost certainly on this side of the Atlantic, because of the risk of jury bias the trial would not have been held in the same city as the crime much less a few hundred metres away from Ground Zero, the site of this most monstrous of crimes. There is a dramatic deliberateness to the decision to site the trial in lower Manhattan despite entirely natural fears of fresh attack. It appears to echo the terrible ritual quality of the Twin Towers attack itself. From the rhetoric, you might think this is to be a show trial. But that would be to discount the majestic independence of American legal process. It has taken years to reach this point, finally prodded by Obama. The trial formats for Guantanamo inmates will vary controversially and the Gatmo saga is far from resolved. It has claimed the scalp of the White House counsel who has failed to deliver Obamas first promise to close the camp within a year of his Jan 20 inauguration. Americans, in particular New Yorkers, will be putting themselves through months maybe years of foreboding and anxiety for what must be a very uncertain outcome. Mohammeds inevitable defence of confession extracted by repeated torture appears to undermine the prosecution from the start. Underlying fears of reprisal and the creation of a new martyrology makes execution unlikely and certainly unwise. There must be great anxiety that America will divide over this trial and others. A lot will depend on events far away in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region where the first al Qaida plots were laid.
Mohammed was subsequently “waterboarded” – a simulated drowning technique formerly used by the CIA – 183 times before he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2006. Behind closed doors at a combatant status review in 2007 he confessed to involvement in 31 plots, including the 2001 attacks which had the blessing of Osama bin Laden. “I was responsible for the 9/11 Operation from A to Z,” he said.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London