U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during an April 1 news conference in New York. (Seth Wenig / AP)
NEW YORK — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday he still believes Manhattan is the right place to put the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks on trial but he won’t revisit the decision to have his fate decided by a military tribunal instead.
Holder commented on the case against Khalid Sheik Mohammed during a visit to New York to congratulate the trial team that last week won a conviction of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who is Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and was al-Qaida’s spokesman after the 2001 attacks.
The attorney general said it was fitting that Abu Ghaith, “who publicly gloated about the attacks on the World Trade Center, stood trial near where those buildings once stood; before a jury of New Yorkers, and; in full view of many of those who lost loved ones in the attack.”
He added: “This verdict has proven beyond any doubt that proceedings such as these can safely occur in the city I am proud to call home, as in other locations across our great nation.”
But he said at a news conference that the success of the Abu Ghaith prosecution did not mean Mohammed could be moved to New York for a civilian trial.
“The time has passed for that determination,” Holder said. “This is not a decision that we are going to revisit.”
In November 2009, Holder announced that Mohammed would be tried in Manhattan courts. He reversed the decision in April 2011 amid rising political opposition and claims by city officials that a trial would damage the local economy and require hundreds of millions of dollars to boost security.
On Tuesday, Holder said he based his decision to announce Mohammed would be tried in New York on the recommendations of prosecutors in New York and the Eastern District of Virginia.
“I think the decision I announced at that time was a correct one,” Holder said. “Many of the problems that we’re now seeing in the military commissions were predicted in the papers that I reviewed that helped shape my decision.”
When Holder announced in 2011 that Mohammed would be tried before a military tribunal, he said families of victims of the attacks deserved swift justice.
The prosecution of Mohammed and four others at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, drag on with a trial unlikely before next year.
Holder praised the handling of Abu Ghaith’s case in a trial before U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan.
“The defendant was put on trial a little over a year after being captured,” he said. “He was convicted on all three counts after roughly six hours of jury deliberations.”
He said the government had demonstrated “great skill” in catching foreign terror suspects, obtaining high-value intelligence from them and then processing them through the civil court system, with more than 165 defendants convicted of terrorism or terrorism-related charges in U.S. courts since 2009.
“While our military courts remain an appropriate venue in certain circumstances, decisions on how best to seek convictions against terrorism defendants must always be based on prosecutorial considerations and never on political ones,” he said.
Abu Ghaith, who married bin Laden’s eldest daughter, is the highest-ranking al-Qaida figure brought to trial on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11 attacks. Prosecutors said he played a leading role in the terror organization’s post-9/11 propaganda videos, but defense lawyers argued he was being prosecuted for his words and associations, not his deeds.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the conviction of Abu Ghaith had prompted some Sept. 11 families to contact his office to express “gratitude and relief that justice was done in this case.”