WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Accused September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four suspected co-conspirators were ordered on Wednesday to stand trial before a Guantanamo war crimes tribunal on terrorism, murder and other charges in a case that could carry the death penalty, the Pentagon said.
The official overseeing the Guantanamo tribunals, retired Vice Admiral Bruce MacDonald, referred the case to a capital military tribunal on charges of terrorism, hijacking aircraft, conspiracy, murder in violation of the law of war, attacking civilians and other counts, the Pentagon said.
Mohammed and the other four are accused of planning and executing the September 11, 2001, hijacked airliner attacks that killed 2,976 people in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. They are accused of conspiring with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other members of the group.
The decision to move to trial in a military court follows years of political and legal wrangling over whether terrorism suspects like Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators should be tried in civilian courts as criminals or before military courts as enemy combatants.
Asked on Wednesday about the decision to proceed to trial, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "It has been more than 10 years since 9/11 and the president is committed to ensuring that those who were accused of perpetrating the attacks against the United States be brought to justice."
The referral of charges comes one year after the administration abandoned efforts to try the five before a civilian court near the site of the World Trade Center attack, as President Barack Obama had promised, and shifted the case to a military tribunal at Guantanamo.
Attorney General Eric Holder blamed lawmakers for the policy reversal, saying their decision to block funding for prosecuting the September 11 suspects in a New York court had tied the administration's hands and forced it to move to a military trial. Congress also blocked the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to the United States for trial or for any other reason.
The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the decision to proceed with a military case, saying the administration was "making a terrible mistake by prosecuting the most important terrorism trials of our time in a second-tier system of justice."
"Whatever verdict comes out of the Guantanamo military commissions will be tainted by an unfair process and the politics that wrongly pulled these cases from federal courts, which have safely and successfully handled hundreds of terrorism trials," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said.
"The families of those lost on 9/11 deserve justice, as do all Americans," said Dixon Osburn of Human Rights First, which favors trial in a federal court. "What Americans don't deserve is a make-it-up-as-you-go-along trial before a tribunal where the rules seem to be under constant scrutiny and revision."
The decision to refer the case to a military tribunal means the five will have to be arraigned before a military judge at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba within 30 days of their formal notification that the case will go to trial. Notification is expected to happen on Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman said.
The case has been referred to a joint trial, meaning the five will be tried together. In addition to Mohammed, the accused are Walid bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi.
James Connell, the civilian attorney for Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, said in a statement that his client, a nephew of Mohammed, did not kill or plan to kill anyone and should not face the death penalty.
Ali's attorneys have said in the past that he was a computer worker in Dubai who sent money to the hijackers and was not a direct participant in planning the attacks.
"Mr. Ali would not be eligible for the death penalty if this case were tried in federal court," Connell said. "This attempt to expand the reach of the death penalty to people who neither killed nor planned to kill is another example of the second-class justice of the military commissions."
Additional reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Vicki Allen