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Nation's Largest Court Case Inches Along In Guantanamo Bay


Over the weekend, a plane carrying a military judge, prosecution and defense teams, interpreters, journalists and relatives of people killed in the 9/11 attacks flew from Washington to Cuba. The destination was Guantanamo Bay. Every other month or so for the past five and a half years, a war tribunal has assembled there. It has struggled to bring to trial five men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks, including the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. That court begins its 26th session this morning. NPR's David Welna joins us now from just outside that courtroom.

David, you've been covering what could become the trial of the century there for years now. How is it that there's not even been a date set for the actual trial?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Rachel, it certainly has not been for lack of trying. Government prosecutors keep pressing the military judge to set a trial date. It's been more than five years since charges were brought against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and his four co-defendants. And earlier this year, those prosecutors wanted a trial in March. Their latest request was for January of 2019.

MARTIN: What's holding things up?

WELNA: Well, you know, this case is immensely complicated under the military commissions created to try these people. All the proceedings are being held here in Guantanamo as if they were in an actual war zone. And the military is, at the same time, victim, judge and prosecutor.

And this case is not just about mass murder. It's also about torture. A Senate report laid out how all five defendants were brutally interrogated for years in secret CIA-run prisons called black sites before being transferred to Guantanamo. And defense lawyers called these black sites crime scenes. But the government says they're classified, and it won't reveal either where they are or who is working at them. In fact, even though these secret prisons were supposed to be preserved, the presiding judge, without first notifying the defense teams, allowed one of those sites to be destroyed.

Yesterday, I talked with Walter Ruiz. He's the lead lawyer for one of the defendants. And Ruiz claims the reason this war court was created here was to cover up the CIA's conduct and withhold as much information as possible. Here's Ruiz.

WALTER RUIZ: Guantanamo, in terms of its isolation, was selected as a place they thought they could isolate and control. Right? They didn't feel like they could have that same type of isolation, that same type of control over a federal judge in a federal courtroom with the application of all of the current due process standards that we have in federal court.

WELNA: In fact, during the session starting today, Ruiz plans to argue that his client doesn't even belong in this war court. He contends there was no war between the U.S. and al-Qaida when the 9/11 attacks occurred and that those attacks should be treated as acts of terrorism rather than as war crimes and that federal courts are where they should be adjudicated.

MARTIN: So meanwhile, thousands of people, relatives of those who were killed on 9/11, have been waiting for justice for more than 16 years now. Any idea how much longer they're going to have to wait?

WELNA: Well, the defense teams expect it'll be years before this case gets to the trial stage. A separate case here was expected to come to trial early next year, but that's all up in the air now because three defense lawyers accused the government of illegally eavesdropping on them while they were meeting with their client.

So the judge in that case ordered Brigadier General John Baker, who manages the defense teams, to put those lawyers back on the case. And when Baker refused to do so, the judge slapped him with contempt of court and three weeks' confinement. He was freed a few days later, but this gives you an idea of how chaotic things are here in these war court trials.

MARTIN: And just - in seconds remaining, David, I mean what is Gitmo now? I mean, President Trump said he was going to load it up with bad dudes - his words. Has he kept that pledge?

WELNA: Not at all. Not a single new detainee has been sent here since Trump took office. In fact, he seems to have changed his mind about this place. After that truck mowed down bikers in New York on Halloween, Trump tweeted he'd love to send the driver to Guantanamo. But he said, statistically, that process takes much longer than going...


WELNA: ...Through the federal system. And he's right.

MARTIN: NPR's David Welna. Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.