U.S. September 11 trial could reignite rights debate

WASHINGTON Mon Feb 11, 2008 3:47pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, meant to exact justice for the September 11 attacks, will also fuel debate over whether the United States violated human rights when it subjected prisoners to waterboarding and other harsh treatment in its war on terrorism, analysts said.

The Pentagon's announcement on Monday that it was charging Mohammed and five others with murder for the 2001 attacks and seeking the death penalty was made only days after the CIA said Mohammed was one of three suspects subjected to waterboarding.

The simulated-drowning interrogation technique has become the focus for debate in Congress and abroad over U.S. treatment of terrorism suspects. The U.N. human rights chief last week said waterboarding should be prosecuted as torture.

Civil rights advocates and terrorism analysts said its use on Mohammed, coupled with questions over the legitimacy of the military commissions set up in 2006 to try terrorism suspects, threatened to undermine the credibility of any verdict.

"The government has now placed itself in a serious bind -- first by subjecting him ... to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques that the world regards as torture, and now by trying him in a military commission proceeding that allows the use of coerced testimony and that much of the world regards as illegitimate," said Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The fact that they are seeking the death penalty, which much of the world has rejected, both increases the stakes and will increase the scrutiny," he said.

But Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in Texas, said despite likely protests and obstacles, he was confident the government had a firm case. "These people need to be punished for their crimes," he said.

The mistreatment of prisoners during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as of foreign terrorist suspects held at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba has seriously undermined the U.S. reputation as an advocate of human rights.

GUANTANAMO BAY

All six being charged have been held at Guantanamo.

Mohammed and four others were subjected to the CIA's interrogation program launched after September 11. The program involved in some cases so-called "enhanced" or harsh interrogation measures, but Mohammed was the only one of the charged group said to have been waterboarded.

"This is a crucial milestone on the road to justice for the victims of 9/11," CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said in a letter to employees. "Our government believes that these six individuals, among others, played important roles in planning and promoting the murder of thousands of innocent people."

Mohammed, a Pakistani national, has said he planned every aspect of the September 11 attacks. He has said he was responsible for a 1993 attack on New York's World Trade Center, the bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, and an attempt to down two American airplanes using shoe bombs.

He also said he carried out the beheading of abducted U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.

Some rights advocates question the credibility of his statements and mental stability, but a senior intelligence official last week said some key elements had been verified.

The commission must almost certainly rule on whether waterboarding is torture and whether Mohammed's confession can be admitted as evidence, Addicott said. The commissions do not allow use of evidence obtained by torture.

The United States insists it does not torture and that its use of waterboarding was legal. But Hayden, two days after publicly confirming the use of waterboarding, said last week it may no longer be legal given changes in U.S. law.

One of the suspects, Mohammed al-Qahtani, who U.S. authorities believe was intended to be one of the September 11 hijackers, was reported while in custody to be ordered to bark like a dog or stand nude and be draped with pictures of scantily-clad women.

"How will we not be embarrassed?" security analyst James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said of any impending trials. He said a key to the verdicts' credibility would be how aggressively military defense lawyers represented the defendants.

(Editing by David Storey)

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