Senate rejects bid to restrict Guantanamo trials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Thursday rejected a measure that would have required prisoners charged with involvement in the September 11 attacks to stand trial in a military court rather than a criminal court.

A view of Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base August 5, 2009. REUTERS/Deborah Gembara

Congress has voted several times this year to restrict how the Obama administration brings terrorism suspects to trial as it seeks to empty the controversial Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba.

But the Senate voted 54-45 to reject the measure after Attorney General Eric Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it would limit their options.

Administration officials plan to decide by November 16 whether to try the remaining 215 Guantanamo detainees in regular civilian courts or a revised version of the military tribunals, which have been criticized for restricting rights of the accused. Some deemed not to be a security risk could be released in foreign countries.

President Barack Obama has pledged to close the facility by January 22, although political and legal hurdles are making it difficult for his administration to meet that goal.

Only five of those held at Guantanamo are accused of involvement in the September 11 hijacked plane attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Prosecutors in the United States are competing to try self-described September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators. They could be executed if found guilty.

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Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the measure’s sponsor, said a public trial for Mohammed or any of the others could compromise national security and give the suspects legal rights they do not deserve.

“Khalid Sheikh Mohammed didn’t rob a liquor store,” Graham said. “He took this nation to war.”

Opponents argued that treating terrorism suspects as war criminals would elevate them to martyr status. They said the administration should be free to decide how best to deal with those left.

“Don’t tie the hands of our law enforcement,” said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham