April 13, 2012
Joanne Mariner
Justia.com

With last week’s announcement that charges against Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and his four co-defendants had been authorized, the on-again, off-again military commission proceedings in the 9/11 case have now officially begun. The United States is seeking the death penalty against all five men, who are accused of the crimes of terrorism, hijacking, murder, conspiracy, and intentionally causing serious bodily injury.

The case has been called the trial of the century. Sixty-six pages of the 123-page charge sheet are taken up by the long list of victims of the 9/11 attacks, from flight attendant Barbara Jean Arestegui, on American Airlines Flight 11, to passenger Honor Elizabeth Wainio, on United Airlines Flight 93.

The stakes in the case are high; the facts are extremely emotive, and the defendants could hardly be less sympathetic. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad has already claimed responsibility for planning the attacks, and the other defendants are accused of playing key organizational or financial roles in them.

For the verdict in such an important, high-profile case to be recognized as just, the trial needs to be seen as fair. The defendants should be granted basic procedural guarantees in proceedings before an independent and impartial tribunal.

But while US officials have put much recent effort into lauding the fairness of the military commissions at Guantanamo, the government still asserts that defendants before the commissions have no constitutional rights. And though the rules governing military commission proceedings have improved significantly over the years, the commissions’ basic structure is still unconducive to independence and impartiality.

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