LONDON U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said on Friday he hoped Guantanamo prisoners charged in the September 11 attacks would not receive the death penalty, even though capital punishment would be fitting.
His comments were swiftly denounced by a defense attorney for one of the accused and by Amnesty International, who said they could prejudice the case.
"It's extremely disturbing," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "You have the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the country indicating that he thinks they are guilty."
Speaking at the London School of Economics, Mukasey said the death penalty would allow the six accused in the attacks on New York and Washington, including the self-confessed commander of al Qaeda's foreign military operations, to portray themselves as victims.
"I hope they don't get the death penalty -- they would see themselves as martyrs," Mukasey said in response to questions at a talk on Anglo-American law enforcement.
Military prosecutors are seeking to execute the men if they are convicted, although the "convening authority" overseeing the case has yet to decide whether to accept it and whether those charged would be eligible for the death penalty.
The accused are being held at the U.S. detention center for terrorism suspects on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Charges are now pending against of 13 of the center's more than 275 prisoners. The Pentagon is trying to move the Guantanamo trials along before the end of the Bush administration in January.
Human rights groups call the proceedings a farce, as detainees do not have legal rights normally accorded to U.S. citizens and prisoners of war.
Pakistani Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and five others are charged with crimes including murder, conspiracy and terrorism for the attacks that killed around 3,000 people in 2001.
If the men were to receive the death penalty, it would at least be a fitting punishment, Mukasey said. "If those are not poster children for the death penalty, I don't know what is," he said.
Mukasey said the military commissions that would try the men are run by the Defense Department and not his Justice Department, which is, however, assisting the prosecution.
He said he was giving his personal opinion in hoping the September 11 accused would escape the death penalty.
"Many of them want to be martyrs and it's kind of like the conversation, you know, between the sadist and the masochist. The masochist says hit me and the sadist says no, so I am kind of hoping they don't get it," he said.
Army Lt. Col. Bryan Broyles, a military lawyer assigned to defend Mohammed al-Qahtani, one of the six current death penalty cases at Guantanamo, said the case was already tainted by suspected U.S. abuse of Qahtani. He added that it was improper for Mukasey to comment.
"I appreciate him being on my side on the death penalty thing, but I don't need his help," Broyles said.
The Pentagon declined to comment.
Qahtani, whom 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.
Cox said Mukasey's remarks fit a disturbing Bush administration pattern. "So much for the presumption of innocence," he said.
"We have adopted a theory where people are first presumed to be guilty, and then we feel that we don't need to give them the kind of protections that real justice demands. Now we have discussions on whether we are going to kill them or not before the trial is over."
(Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen in Washington and Jane Sutton in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Editing by Xavier Briand)