SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It's been almost 18 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. It's been between 16 and 17 years since suspects in those attacks were captured and imprisoned, and it's been more than a decade since those defendants were first arraigned. Now a U.S. military court judge in Guantanamo Bay has finally set a trial date for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other men charged in that crime. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer has traveled to Guantanamo to cover the military hearings taking place there and joins us. Sacha, thanks so much for being with us.
SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Happy to be here.
SIMON: Sacha, I gather trial date of January 11, 2021, has been set.
PFEIFFER: It has been, although there are a lot of caveats there because several other deadlines have to be met for the trial to actually start then. For one thing, the government would have to turn over all evidence it's required to give defense attorneys. And those defense attorneys say prosecutors have not been forthcoming in doing that. The defense attorneys also say that Guantanamo is nowhere ready for a trial of this scale and the number of lawyers and reporters it would draw - doesn't have enough housing, vehicles, office space, even bathrooms.
But prosecutors say that having an actual trial date will finally motivate everyone to meet the deadline. They also say the government will have to spend whatever money is needed to get Guantanamo ready for trial.
SIMON: And this is a death penalty trial, isn't it?
PFEIFFER: It is. And that obviously raises the stakes, and it raises the legal standard. So that contributes to why this has taken so long for this to work its way through the system.
SIMON: Remind us why it's taken so long to schedule a trial.
PFEIFFER: For one thing, this military court was basically created from scratch. Before this war court was set up, the U.S. hadn't had a military commission since World War II. So they're still working out basic legal questions, like does the U.S. Constitution apply to these proceedings? Also, at one point, President Obama suspended the war court. Then Congress overhauled it to give the defendants more rights, so that caused delays.
And in general, it's complicated. It's controversial. There are huge, difficult questions about torture, the law of war, if the commissions are even legitimate. It's led to years of pretrial hearings with long arguments among lawyers about really complicated issues like whether the men can even be charged with war crimes. The defense attorneys say we weren't at war with al-Qaida on September 11, 2001, so you can't charge them with war crimes. Also, because it's being held in Cuba, basically, the going back and forth is really arduous, and that also slows it down.
SIMON: So how realistic do you regard this trial date?
PFEIFFER: Well, the defense attorneys I talked to say it is not very realistic. And for me from the outside looking in, as a reporter covering it, the hearings do look basically stuck in place. It can look like there's no forward progress, even though there's a lot of legal activity happening down there with these complicated arguments over controversial legal issues.
But there is a new judge who took over the case in June. He's an Air Force colonel. His name is Shane Cohen. I attended a July hearing at Guantanamo, and he seemed to be really aggressively trying to move this case to trial. He also said he wants to make sure it's a fair trial. I did talk with one Guantanamo defense attorney who said never say never, but it sounds to me like the optimism of a new judge. So the defense attorneys are skeptical. But this judge seems determined to try to do what judges before him have failed to do, and that is take it to trial.
SIMON: NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer talking about the trial date that's finally been set for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men charged in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sacha, thanks so much for being with us.
PFEIFFER: Thanks, Scott.
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