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US divided over where to try 9/11 suspects

President Barack Obama's plan to try the alleged 9/11 mastermind in a civilian court in Manhattan remains controversial. The debate is heating up, as another al-Qaeda member is acquitted of all but one charge.

Ground Zero in 2010, blue sky and skyscrapers in the background

Trying the alleged 9/11 mastermind blocks from Ground Zero remains controversial

So far, no final decision has been made on where to try the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his four co-accused. President Obama's initial intention to hold the trial in a federal court just a few hundred meters away from Ground Zero was dealt a serious blow by a recent verdict for Ahmed Ghailani, the first Guantanamo Bay detainee to be tried in a US federal court.

Close-up of Ahmed Ghailani

Ahmed Ghailini was the first Guantanamo Bay inmate to face civilian trial

Ghailani, co-responsible for the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa, was acquitted of more than 200 murder charges in the same courthouse the 9/11 suspects could be tried. While he was convicted of conspiracy and faces a minimum of 20 years in prison, the sentence was widely conceived as being too mild.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell called the verdict "all the proof we need that the administration's approach to prosecuting terrorists has been deeply misguided and indeed harmful as a matter of national security."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently renewed her backing of federal trials for terror suspects. Yet, she didn't rule out the possibility of trying the 9/11 suspects before a military commission. "I believe that the vast majority of the defendants can be tried in (civilian) courts, but there are some who should not be," Clinton said. "And they should be reserved for military commission, for a variety of reasons."

Upholding the moral high ground

In contrast to military commissions, federal courts provide suspects with the constitutional protections of US citizens. Critics argue that federal trials also provide terrorists with legislative loopholes, making it hard to convict guilty defendants.

Picture of Guantanamo inmates

The Guantanamo Bay detention camp has tarnished US reputation on human rights

However, trying terror suspects in civilian courts is a substantial aspect of President Obama's objective to uphold the moral high ground in the war on terrorism and to enhance the United States' international reputation on human rights issues.

The Justice Department also pointed out that federal courts were particularly effective in dealing with terrorism-related charges. While military commissions have convicted only five suspects in respective trials so far, civilian courts have convicted more than 400.

Yet, polls show that the majority of American voters are in favor of trying terror suspects in military courts. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 59 percent support the practice. Less than a month after the devastating midterm election results for his party, President Obama may be forced to compromise on such a controversial topic.

Downtown Manhattan too risky?

Aside from the legal frameworks, critics also fear the ramifications of trying the 9/11 suspects in downtown Manhattan. Many say the trial would unnecessarily increase the risk of further terrorist attacks on the metropolis. In a bipartisan appeal, John McCain and five other Senators further remarked that the location would provide terrorists with "one of the most visible platforms in the world to exalt their past acts and to rally others in support of further terrorism."

Close-up of New York Major Bloomberg

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg estimates the trial's total costs at $1 billion

And finally, citizens and lawmakers have expressed concern about the security costs of such a trial. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the trial would cost about $200 million (145 million euros) a year in security measures. As the trial could last up to five years, the total sum could amount to $1 billion.

'I'm a New Yorker'

In an attempt to make the case for a civilian trial in New York City, Human Rights Watch has sponsored a 30-second video that played in more than 11,000 of the city's taxis throughout last week. The "man-on-the-street" style video showed New York residents saying why they think the 9/11 terror suspects should be tried in a civilian court in Manhattan. Starting their statements with the introductory line "I'm a New Yorker," they went on to argue, for example, that the family members of 9/11 victims should be able to access the trial. They also underscored the symbolic power of administering justice only blocks away from where the attacks took place.

Image of New York's civil court

Until a decision is made, the suspects remain detained without a trial

Thus, the outcome of the controversy remains uncertain. President Obama has already ordered US Attorney General Eric Holder to find alternative sites for the trial - just in case. In order to find a compromise, experts say that the trial could be moved to a courtroom in the state of New York, outside of Manhattan.

At present, however, the decision seems to be too sensitive for a resolution to be found. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-accused remain detained without trial for the time being.

Author: David Schnicke
Editor: Rob Mudge

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