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Alleged 9/11 Mastermind, Others To Be Tried In New York

Khalid Sheikh Muhammad shortly after his capture in Pakistan in 2003

Khalid Sheikh Muhammad shortly after his capture in Pakistan in 2003

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The accused mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks and four other top terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay will prosecuted in U.S. criminal courts, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said, the first major step in moves to close the controversial prison.

Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and the other men accused of the attacks were being prosecuted in military commissions at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, but U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to close the prison by mid-January and move some cases to U.S. criminal courts.

"I am absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheikh Muhammad will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice. The American people will insist on it. My administration will insist on it," Obama said in Tokyo during a trip through Asia.

Civil rights advocates hailed the decision to move some of the cases to traditional U.S. criminal courts, but Republicans blasted the Obama administration for bringing terrorism suspects onto U.S. soil, arguing it could spark new attacks.

Five other Guantanamo prisoners, including the alleged mastermind of the attack on the "USS Cole" warship in Yemen, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and a young Canadian accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, will be tried in revamped military commissions.

It will likely be a daunting task to put the men on trial in New York, where the World Trade Center twin towers were felled by hijacked planes on September 11, 2001. Almost 3,000 people were killed in the attacks that day.

"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. "The alleged 9/11 conspirators will stand trial in our justice system before an impartial jury under long-established rules and procedures."

Holder said that he would authorize prosecutors to seek the death penalty against the five men accused of the September 11 attacks and that they would be held at a federal detention facility in New York.

The decisions about the 10 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 November 13.