US prosecutors have started negotiating a plea deal with Pakistani terrorists and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others currently lodged in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, a move which could result in the commutation of their death sentence to life imprisonment, according to a media report.
The New York Times’ report said that the plea deal would undoubtedly disappoint, if not enrage, death-penalty advocates among the victims’ family members. The unprecedented terror attack on September 11, 2001 destroyed the twin towers of the iconic World Trade Center (WTC) in New York, killing nearly 3,000 people, including many Indians.
The report said that other family members, including those troubled by the role of the US torture in the case and the delays, might see it as a fitting conclusion.
While no deal is expected soon, guilty pleas resulting in life sentences could force the Biden administration to “modify its ambition of ending detention operations at Guantánamo Bay and instead rebrand it as a military prison for a few men,” it said.
The report cited people with knowledge of the discussions as saying that “prosecutors have opened talks with lawyers” for 58-year-old Shaikh and his four co-defendants to “negotiate a potential plea agreement that would drop the possibility of execution.”
The report added that a guilty plea in exchange for life sentences and not execution could bring to an end the case going on for years now at Guantanamo Bay.
“Nearly a decade after the men were arraigned, the military judge has set no trial start date,” it said.
During the Trump administration, there had been a failed attempt at such talks when the accused plotters had demanded that they serve their sentences at Guantanamo, where they are able to pray and eat in groups.
They did not want to be sent to the supermax prison in Colorado where federal inmates are held in solitary confinement up to 23 hours a day, the report said.
“A plea deal would undoubtedly disappoint, if not enrage, death-penalty advocates among the victims’ family members. But other family members, including those troubled by the role of US torture in the case and the delays, might see it as a fitting conclusion,” it said.
Following a nearly two-year closure of the court due to the coronavirus pandemic, discussions began last week, the report said.
The NYT report said as part of any plea agreement, the defendants would have to work with prosecutors through their lawyers on “individual lengthy narratives known as a stipulation of fact” which will be prosecution-approved admission of their crimes.
The report said that the judge, defense and prosecution teams had traveled to Guantanamo Bay for three weeks of hearings meant to address disputes over evidence, “particularly showing the role of the FBI in the CIA prison network” where Shaikh and his co-defendants were “tortured after they were captured in Pakistan in 2002 and 2003.”
A lead prosecutor in the case Clayton Trivett wrote to the defense teams that they discuss “whether pretrial agreements are possible for all five cases.”
“While I cannot guarantee that we will come to terms over these next two weeks,” Trivett said in an email, “putting a concerted effort focused solely on possible agreements while we are all onboard Guantánamo, where your clients and teams are present, maybe our best chance of at least determining if deals can be reached.”
The report said that within days, the five defendants and their lawyers met in the courtroom to compile an initial list of requirements for the guilty plea, “starting with removing the death penalty from the case.”
While prosecutors have begun the negotiations, a senior Pentagon official known as the convening authority Col. Jeffrey D Wood of the Arkansas National Guard must approve any deal.
The report further reported that a core issue in the matter is how many of the defendants besides Shaikh would serve life sentences without the possibility of parole and whether some of the accused accomplices with lesser roles in the attacks would serve shorter sentences.
Lawyers for two defendants — Saudi prisoner Mustafa al-Hawsawi and Pakistani national and Shaikh’s nephew Ammar al-Baluchi — have described them as being ignorant of the 9/11 plot when they helped some of the hijackers with money transfers and travel arrangements from the UAE. (PTI)