Biden rejects plea deal conditions for Guantanamo Bay detainees in September 11 case

Deal would have spared five men accused of conspiring to carry out 2001 terrorist attacks from the death penalty

The Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. AP
Powered by automated translation

US President Joe Biden's decision to reject plea deal conditions by five Guantanamo Bay detainees should be part of a continued effort by the White House to bring closure to families of September 11 victims, said a person whose family member was killed in the 2001 terrorist attacks.

In exchange for pleading guilty to conspiring to carry out the September 11 attacks, the defendants would have been spared the death penalty, instead receiving a maximum sentence of life in prison, The New York Times first reported.

“It certainly seems like a signalling of a positive development from the administration at least in its willingness to listen to the 9/11 community and listen to the family members,” said Brett Eagleson, president of 9/11 Justice, whose father was killed in the attacks.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man accused of planning the terrorist attacks, and four other prisoners sought additional assurances in the deal, among them being not spending their sentences in solitary confinement and being allowed to eat and pray with other prisoners.

They also want a programme to help treat sleep disorders, brain injuries and other health issues that they say are a result of torture during interrogations that took place before they were transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

"One of the reasons for plea negotiations is that the Guantanamo military commissions have failed and will continue to fail in delivering any kind of justice," Alka Pradhan, a lawyer for Ammar Al Baluchi in the case, told The National.

Ms Pradhan said Mr Al Baluchi continues to experience serious medical issues related to the torture that he was subjected to.

"The Biden administration refuses to provide these men with necessary medical care, which is a continuing violation of international law. We will continue to seek comprehensive medical care and torture rehabilitation for Mr al Baluchi," she said.

The President was reported to have reservations about accepting a plea deal for the men responsible for the deadliest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbour. About 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and the Washington metropolitan area were killed during the attacks.

Mr Eagleson was one of more than 2,000 family members of the victims who urged Mr Biden to reject the deal's conditions.

But that should only be part of the process to bring families closure, he said.

“Part one is to object to a plea deal,” Mr Eagleson told The National. “But part two would be to see a real true co-operation once and for all from the US government, working with the 9/11 families … to try to bring us closure.”

Lawyers representing families of the September 11 victims have pushed Mr Biden's administration and previous administrations for documents relating to what the US knows about who supported the terror attacks.

Mr Eagleson said families have had to “claw, scream and shout and demand … scraps of information” since the 2001 attacks.

He also said they were told by the Defence Department that a plea deal could still happen, but that Mr Biden had rejected it in its current form.

“But at least it seems for the time being we've delayed a worst-case scenario, where the Biden administration would sign off on a deal which would prevent these individuals from speaking and prevent these individuals from having a public trial,” he said.

“I certainly think it is a signal that things are starting to move in the right direction.

“We look forward to continuing to work and engage with the administration and President Biden to finally bring us closure after 22 years.”

Pretrial hearings have been held at the prison site in Cuba for more than a decade. The case is complicated by the CIA's torture of the defendants in the first years after the attacks, leading to legal questions about the admissibility of evidence during trial, among other complexities.

A confession from Abd Al Rahim Al Nashiri, a Guantanamo Bay defendant in a separate case, was ruled to be excluded from evidence because of torture he had suffered after arriving at the detention centre in 2007.

"As the recent Nashiri ruling shows, the government’s efforts to torture and then use torture-acquired evidence against these men has not served the country well," Ms Pradhan said.

A trial date for the men accused of plotting the September 11 attacks has yet to be scheduled.

Updated: September 07, 2023, 4:57 PM