WASHINGTON — Yielding to political opposition, the Obama administration gave up Monday on trying avowed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged henchmen in civilian federal court in New York and will prosecute them instead before military commissions.

The families of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have waited almost a decade for justice, and “it must not be delayed any longer,” Attorney General Eric Holder told a news conference at the Justice Department.

In November 2009, Holder had announced the plan for a New York trial blocks from where the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks destroyed the World Trade Center. That idea was thwarted by widespread opposition from Republicans and even some Democrats, particularly in New York.

Congress passed legislation that prohibits bringing any detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States.

On Monday, the attorney general called those congressional restrictions unwise and unwarranted and said a legislative body cannot make prosecutorial decisions.

Although President Obama made a campaign pledge to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba, Holder indicated that isn’t going to happen any time soon because of congressional restrictions.

“We must face a simple truth: those restrictions are unlikely to be repealed in the immediate future,” Holder said.

Even though closing the Guantanamo jail remains the administration’s formal goal, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama supported Holder’s decision to move the 9/11 trial from a civilian court to military tribunals.

Most Republicans applauded the turnabout, but Holder said he is still convinced that his earlier decision was the right one. The Justice Department had been prepared to bring “a powerful case” in civilian court, he said.

In New York on Monday, the government unsealed an indictment that outlined its case. It charged Mohammed and the others with 10 counts relating to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The indictment said that in late August 2001, as the terrorists in the United States made final preparations, Mohammed was notified about the date of the attack and relayed that to al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

The Justice Department got a judge to dismiss the indictment Monday because of the change in trial plans.

“We’re delighted,” said Alexander Santora, 74, father of deceased firefighter Christopher A. Santora. He called the accused terrorists “demonic human beings, they’ve already said that they would kill us if they could, if they got the chance they would do it again.”

Nancy Nee, whose firefighter brother George Cain died at the World Trade Center, said that the five men are “war criminals as far as I’m concerned and I think that a military trial is the right thing to do.”

But Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he is disappointed with the decision. “I believe that our justice system, which is the envy of the world, is more than capable of trying high-profile terrorism and national security cases,” said Leahy.

Republican lawmakers welcomed the shift.

“It’s unfortunate that it took the Obama administration more than two years to figure out what the majority of Americans already know: that 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not a common criminal, he’s a war criminal,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican senator on Judiciary, said the president’s “improvident campaign pledge to shutter Gitmo was built on the naive premise that softening America’s image would somehow soften our enemies’ resolve.” Sessions called Holder’s announcement a “retreat” and said he hopes it marks “a real policy change from President Obama.”

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the administration.

Cases prosecuted in military commissions now “are sure to be subject to continuous legal challenges and delays, and their outcomes will not be seen as legitimate. That is not justice,” said ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero.

 


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