This article was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
The military judge in charge of the September 11 case in Guantánamo Bay in Cuba again postponed the procedural deadlines on Friday, postponing the start of the trial of accused mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four accused co-conspirators after the 20th anniversary of the attacks next year. .
The death penalty case, which was in its eighth year of pre-trial proceedings, was already complicated by its remoteness, procedural issues, legal challenges and scrutiny of classified evidence by different parts of the US government.
“The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has continued to worsen,” wrote the judge, Army Col. Douglas K. Watkins, in a two-page order that extended the deadlines by an additional 30 days, for a total 300 days late since the start of the pandemic.
Based on the trial schedule set by a former judge, the selection of military officers for the jury will now begin on November 7, 2021 at the earliest.
The pandemic has crippled much of the work of the Court, whose participants travel from the mainland to the courtrooms of military commissions in Cuba at each session. The last hearing in the case was held in February by Judge W. Shane Cohen, who abruptly announced his retirement a month later and took up a post as assistant district attorney in Salt Lake County, Utah.
Hijackers took control of four commercial planes on September 11, 2001 and crashed them in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing 2,976 people. Mr Mohammed, his nephew and three other men are accused of organizing the conspiracy by training or selecting the hijackers or helping them reach the United States with funding and travel arrangements.
So far, six judges have served in the case since the defendants were brought to trial in 2012. Judge Watkins, who is the chief justice of the military commissions and is based in Fort Hood, Texas, now presides over after two attempts to replace Colonel Cohen.
In October, he assigned Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew N. McCall to preside, but prosecutors protested Col. McCall was not qualified to serve because he had served less than two years as a judge in the military court martial system, a prerequisite for chairing a military commission. A recent court record showed that, after prosecutors protested, Col. Watkins requested a written waiver of the requirement from Deputy Secretary of Defense David L. Norquist, who refused.
Previously, a Navy judge with childhood ties to New York, Col. Stephen F. Keane, was granted the assignment but recused himself weeks after discovering “a significant personal connection with people directly affected by the events of September 11 ”.
The pandemic forced all hearings in the case to be canceled, which were suspended amidst the judge collecting extensive testimony on whether the main interrogations of prisoners at Guantánamo in 2007 were inadmissible at trial because they are tortured by the CIA.
The pandemic has complicated other aspects of preparing for the joint conspiracy trial.
One of the defendants, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, has yet to meet his death row lawyer, who was assigned to the case in April. The lawyer, David I. Bruck, said in a court file that once he met Mr. bin al-Shibh, it would take him 30 months to prepare for trial.
One option would be to remove Mr bin al-Shibh from the case and give him a separate trial later, which the first judge did for a while in 2014 before overturning because prosecutors got there. opposites. Even so, the latest contested order postpones the start of any version of the case until November at the earliest.