WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The accused mastermind of the September 11 attacks and four co-conspirators will be sent to New York for trial in a court near the site of the World Trade Center, the Obama administration said on Friday, as it took a step toward closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the others had been facing military commission trials at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, but U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to close the prison.
Civil liberties advocates hailed the decision to transfer the men to criminal courts but Republicans lashed out, arguing that bringing them to U.S. soil could make New York a magnet for new attacks and that the men deserved military trials.
Obama's decision opened him to risks -- should the prosecutions fail, or if it prompts further attacks, it could anger the victims' families and prompt a public backlash.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder expressed confidence that the cases were strong and said the trials would not be impaired by the harsh interrogations of Mohammed and others.
"I am confident in the ability of our courts to provide these defendants a fair trial, just as they have for over 200 years," Holder told reporters. "I am quite confident that the outcomes in these cases will be successful ones."
Obama has promised to close Guantanamo by January 22, saying that it has become a recruiting symbol for anti-American groups and it has tarnished the U.S. reputation because of allegations of prisoner mistreatment.
In New York, some people were angry at the prospect of the men coming to a city traumatized by the hijacked-plane attacks eight years ago but others voiced relief that justice may soon be done.
Holder said that he would authorize prosecutors to seek the death penalty against the five defendants, who will be tried together in New York. The others are Walid bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi.
There are still 215 prisoners at Guantanamo. The Obama administration has been trying to find countries willing to take detainees who have been cleared of terrorism connections.
Congress, with support from Obama's fellow Democrats who have backed closing the prison, barred releasing detainees into the United States.
Holder on Friday repeated earlier statements that it would be difficult to meet the January deadline.
The Justice Department also said that five other Guantanamo prisoners, including the alleged mastermind of a 2000 attack on the USS Cole warship in Yemen, Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, and a young Canadian, Omar Khadr, accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, would be tried in revamped military tribunals.
In an interview with public television's "The NewsHour", Holder said he expected to decide in the next two weeks which other detainees will be tried in criminal or military courts.
Civil liberties advocates hailed Friday's decision.
"Bringing these men to justice in a legitimate system will allow the world to focus at long last on the atrocities they are accused of committing against us, rather than on how we have treated them," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.
Republican Senator John McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election but also supports closing Guantanamo, condemned the decision, arguing that military tribunals were the best venue for the terrorism suspects.
"They are war criminals, who committed acts of war against our citizens and those of dozens of other nations," he said.
The five September 11 suspects are unlikely to be moved until January because the administration must give Congress 45 days notice and alert state and local officials. Once in New York they will be held in a federal detention facility.
Potentially complicating the case is that while Mohammed was in U.S. custody before being brought to Guantanamo, he was subjected 183 times to "waterboarding," which simulates drowning by pouring water over the face while restrained.
Any confessions or other information gleaned through torture could probably not be used during trial. In many other Guantanamo cases, judges have barred such evidence. But Holder said other evidence was available for prosecutors.
In addition to claiming responsibility for the September 11 attacks, Mohammed has said he carried out other attacks and in 2002 beheaded kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.
"I am absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice," Obama said in Tokyo during a trip through Asia.
Holder said in the public television interview that he did not consult Obama about the decision but merely informed him.
He told reporters the New York trial would take place at a court a few blocks from where the World Trade Center twin towers stood before they were felled by hijacked planes. Almost 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon were killed in the attacks.
"It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The decisions about the terrorism suspects came as Obama's top lawyer, Gregory Craig, who was charged with leading the White House's troubled effort to close Guantanamo, announced his resignation on Friday.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Tokyo and Michelle Nichols in New York, Editing by Arshad Mohammed and David Storey