Five suspected terrorists have told a U.S. military judge in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that they want to make confessions about their roles in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
If convicted at the trial before a military commission, the defendants could receive the death penalty. Two of the defendants -- including Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the suspected mastermind of the attacks -- already have said they desire execution because it would make them martyrs.
The motivations of two other defendants, however, are in question, and the judge ordered a hearing to determine whether they're competent to defend themselves.
Martyrdom isn't an unusual motivation for Muslim militants, but in this case the military judge wants to make sure the men are competent to make the decision to confess and, perhaps, be executed.
At issue is coercion, according to Stacy Sullivan, a counterterrorism adviser at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch who has been following the case closely. She says that the coercion could come either from Muhammad, a senior member of Al-Qaeda, or from the defendants' U.S. captors -- or both.
Sullivan says that last spring, the defendants held a meeting led by Muhammad at the start of their first hearing, then announced abruptly that they would reject their lawyers, following his lead.
The judge decided at that time to hold a hearing on whether Muhammad had coerced his fellow detainees into rejecting counsel. Sullivan says he should also be considering whether the men were being coerced by their long and harsh incarceration.
"Three of the five have openly admitted their involvement in 9/11 -- they've bragged about it, they've expressed their guilt in the past, they just haven't entered pleas. So in that sense, this [their supposed guilt] isn't really new," Sullivan says.
"Our concern is that they've been held for seven years and subjected to abuse and torture. Could these guilty pleas be the result of that? The second issue is the coercion from Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. It might well be that some of the others didn't want to plead guilty, but feel pressured because of him."
Issue Of Military Commissions
Sullivan says such problems could be resolved quicker and more satisfactorily if the trials weren't being conducted by military commissions, which were set up seven years ago to focus solely on suspected terrorists and so-called illegal combatants in what U.S. President George W. Bush calls the "war on terror."
In Sullivan's view, the only way to ensure justice -- whether they are acquitted or convicted of any crimes -- is to try the defendants before the U.S. federal courts, if only because the military commissions allow coerced testimony and the federal courts do not. Besides, she says, the federal courts are more efficient at trying terrorism cases.
"In the seven years since we've had the military commissions process, the federal courts have tried about 145 terrorism cases. The military commissions have had three convictions in seven years -- not a very good record," Sullivan says.
"Also, because the commissions process has been subjected to so much criticism, any guilty plea or any kind of conviction doesn't really hold credibility either with the American people or with people around the world."
The defendants told the judge today that they decided to make their confessions on November 4, the day Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election. Obama has promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and end the military commission trials.
This raises the question whether they hope to hasten their executions and deny Obama the opportunity of sparing them what Muhammad calls illegitimate detention and trial.
Question Of Competence
Whatever they hope to achieve by confessing, however, a more important question is whether the men are competent to face trial at all. According to Mark Agrast, who specializes in human rights issues at the Center for American Progress, a private policy-research center in Washington, their competence is questionable not just because at least two have been subject to what the Bush administration calls "aggressive interrogation techniques," and also because of their long incarceration.
"These people have been confined for a very, very long time without being tried, and the issues of competency have been raised by the attorneys for at least two of these men. [Some might ask] 'What is their strategy? What are they trying to achieve here?'" Agrast observes.
"It seems to me that the first question is: 'Are they competent to plead?' Because if they're not, then whatever may be happening in their minds may or may not result in a successful plea," he says. "The court does not have to accept a guilty plea."
As for the efficacy of the military commissions, Agrast agrees with Sullivan. He says the Bush administration insists on placing what he calls "an essentially meaningless distinction" between military and civil justice, insisting on waging war on terrorists and avoiding the civilian investigatory approach.
"The fact is that there's a continuum, and we cannot fight terrorists by using one and not the other," Agrast says. "We have to have a coordinated approach which enlists both the national security agencies and the law enforcement agencies of our country, at the federal level and at the state and local levels, to cooperate in apprehending terrorists and, most importantly, in preventing these attacks from occurring in the future."
By putting the entire process in the hands of the Pentagon, Agrast says, the Bush administration entirely sidesteps the established means of dealing with accused terrorists and war criminals.
Agrast says international courts could handle the cases well, and says U.S. federal courts would be just as effective, and just as universally respected. In fact, he says, U.S. courts have long been "the model for the world."