Holder Defends Federal Court Terror Trials
MANHATTAN (CN) - In the shadow of Ground Zero, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that the speedy conviction of al-Qaida propagandist Sulaiman Abu Ghaith vindicates superiority of federal courts over military commissions for terrorism trials.
"We never doubted the ability of our Article III court system to administer justice swiftly in this case, as it has in hundreds of other cases involving terrorism defendants," Holder said at a press conference, referring to the section of the Constitution related to the federal judiciary. "It would be a good thing for the country if this case has the result of putting that political debate to rest. This outcome vindicates the government's approach to securing convictions against not only this particular defendant, but also other senior leaders of al-Qaida."
Visiting from Washington, the Bronx-born Holder quipped that he was pleased to return to the "nation's capital" at the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office at One St. Andrews Plaza to applaud the March 26 conviction of Abu Ghaith.
One World Trade Center, the shimmering skyscraper built on the ashes of the nation's worst terrorist attack, looms less than a mile away from the prosecutor's office and the federal courthouse.
A propagandist and son-in-law to Osama bin Laden, Abu Ghaith became the highest-ranking al-Qaida member to be convicted in a civil trial on American soil since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
He faces up to life in prison at sentencing on Sept. 8.
In a not-so-subtle dig at the glacial pace of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, where prosecutors have been trying for six years to bring the case of alleged Sept. 11 "mastermind" Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to trial, Holder emphasized the "swift and true" justice that Abu Ghaith faced "right here in New York City."
Known by his initials KSM, Mohammad and his alleged accomplices had tried to plead guilty once before, but ironically, it was unclear whether the military commissions code would grant the death-penalty punishment that the defendants then requested if they did not go to trial.
Proceedings languished as President Barack Obama's administration sought removal of the case to the Southern District of New York where such an admission would have been quickly accepted.
Praising the "efficiency," "speed" and "impeccable integrity" of federal courts, Holder said: "The system is both tried and tested."
With the brief allowance that military trials "remain an appropriate venue in certain circumstances," Holder criticized Guantanamo Bay's highest-profile case during the Q-and-A session.
After repeatedly promising to close Guantanamo, Obama retreated from prosecuting the 9/11 accused in New York City amid political furor from congressional Republicans and resistance from then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Holder told reporters that the time had passed to reconsider another attempt at prosecuting KSM and company in New York, but that he had predicted the "problems" military prosecutors have been encountering with the case in Guantanamo Bay.
Another round of pretrial hearings for the 9/11 accused is scheduled to take place in Guantanamo on April 14, after KSM's alleged co-conspirator Ramzi bin al-Shibh's noisy courtroom protests derailed proceedings for month.
Before those delays, trials for the 9/11 accused were expected by 2015 at the earliest.