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Trial Of Sept. 11 Defendants At Guantánamo Delayed Until August 2021

The sun rises over the detention facility at the Guantánamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, in this May 13, 2009, photo reviewed by the U.S. military.
Brennan Linsley
The sun rises over the detention facility at the Guantánamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, in this May 13, 2009, photo reviewed by the U.S. military.

The setbacks keep piling up in the long-delayed 9/11 case in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

A new U.S military court judge has canceled all hearings in the case until next year and delayed the start of the trial of the five defendants charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks until at least August 2021.

Jury selection had been scheduled to begin in January 2021, but the new judge — Col. Stephen F. Keane, who began overseeing the case in September — said a delay is necessary due to pandemic travel restrictions and his need to familiarize himself with the case.

Many Guantánamo attorneys say even the revised start date isn't realistic, given that legal proceedings there have been at a virtual standstill since February, when the coronavirus began limiting access to the island.

"I do not expect that the trial will begin in August of 2021 because there's just too much ground to cover between now and then," said James Connell, lead attorney for Guantánamo prisoner Ammar al-Baluchi, who is accused of funding the 9/11 hijackers.

Tuesday's delay order by Judge Keane, the fourth judge to oversee the 9/11 case, is the latest stumbling block at Guantánamo's problem-plagued military court and prison, which NPR found has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $6 billion since 2002. Other recent complications include:

  • The previous 9/11 judge, Air Force Col. W. Shane Cohen, left abruptly after nine months on the job, citing family concerns.
  • The former administrative head of the military court, Christian Reismeier, moved to a different role after being in his position for less than a year.
  • James P. Harrington, the lead attorney for one of the 9/11 defendants, asked to leave the case, citing health issues and "incompatibility" with his client.
  • David Bruck, the new lead attorney assigned to represent Harrington's client, said he needs 2 1/2 years to prepare for trial.
  • All of those personnel changes cost the court time.

    Guantánamo's prison still holds 40 men, down from nearly 800 people who have been detained there since it opened in 2002. Some of the 40 remaining prisoners have been held for more than 18 years without being charged, and some have been cleared for release but remain incarcerated. Guantánamo prosecutors have finalized only one conviction in the military court's history.

    To resolve Guantánamo's deadlock, numerous lawyers have proposed trying the cases in U.S. federal courts, which have extensive experience handling terrorism prosecutions, or negotiating guilty pleas with the prisoners in return for life in prison. Another former administrative head of Guantánamo's military court, Harvey Rishikof, was removed from his position after trying to negotiate such settlements — leaving attorneys such as Connell unsure how the 9/11 cases will ultimately conclude.

    "The last person who tried to resolve the case in any way other than trial got fired for it," Connell said, "so I don't know how things are going to end up."

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    Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.