GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba Two dozen people who lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks issued a statement on Wednesday denouncing the Guantanamo war crimes trials as illegitimate, shameful and politically motivated.
Their criticism came in response to passionate praise for the Guantanamo tribunals from other victims' relatives, whom the Pentagon brought to the remote U.S. naval base in Cuba this week to observe pretrial hearings for five prisoners charged with plotting the September 11 attacks.
"These prosecutions have been politically motivated from the start, are designed to ensure quick convictions at the expense of due process and transparency, and are structured to prevent the revelation of abusive interrogations and torture engaged in by the U.S. government," said the 24 relatives who signed Wednesday's statement, which was distributed through the American Civil Liberties Union.
They said any verdict in the Guantanamo proceedings, which are formally known as military commissions, would leave them wondering if justice had been served.
"No comfort or closure can come from military commissions that ignore the rule of law and stain America's reputation at home and abroad," they said. "It is time for our nation to stop betraying its own values and the values of so many who died on 9/11."
No one group could possibly speak for all the relatives of the 2,973 people killed when al Qaeda militants crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001.
Relatives of five victims were chosen by the U.S. Department of Defense to attend Monday's hearing, in which self-confessed September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants offered to confess and plead guilty.
The pleas were delayed indefinitely by questions about the tribunal rules and the defendants' sanity.
In a news conference after the hearing, those relatives were emotional and unanimous in their view that the Guantanamo tribunals were fair and should continue.
They said they were proud of the rights the defendants were afforded and marveled that they were offered prayer breaks and respectful treatment even as they seemed to boast of their guilt.
That group was chosen by random lottery from among more than 100 September 11 families who applied to attend, said a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon. The scarcity of flights and housing at the remote Guantanamo base made it necessary to limit the size of the group, he said.
Tom Durkin, one of defendant Ramzi Binalshibh's civilian lawyers, accused the Pentagon of trying to use those families' grief to blackmail President-elect Barack Obama into continuing the Guantanamo tribunals.
Obama has said he would shut the Guantanamo detention camps and move the terrorism trials into the regular U.S. civilian and military courts.
Hamilton Peterson, whose father and stepmother, Donald and Jean Peterson, died on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, predicted Obama would change his mind as he learns more in security briefings about those held at Guantanamo.
"I think he will come to the realization that this is a very appropriate, fair venue," Peterson said in the Pentagon news conference.
But even among that group there was disagreement about what should happen to the September 11 defendants if they are convicted. Some said they favored executing them, and some of the defendants themselves have said they welcomed martyrdom.
But Alice Hoagland, whose son Mark Bingham also died on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, said they did not deserve to be treated as martyrs.
"There are things worse than death and one of those things is to spend your life totally under the control of people you profess to hate ... we should be sure that these dreadful people sit out their lives in a United States prison so that we can demonstrate that we are a compassionate people and a nation of laws and we have higher respect for life than they have, even their miserable lives."
(Editing by David Wiessler)