Families furious as 5 Gitmo prisoners negotiate plea deals with prosecutors for 9/11 attacks

As the nation spent a somber Sunday remembering the thousands who died 21 years ago on 9/11, plea deals that would remove the death penalty and keep Gitmo open are in the works for five charged defendants, including the self-described “architect” of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

CBS News has confirmed that attorneys for Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, Walid bin Attash, and Ammar al-Baluchiare working with military prosecutors “in good faith” after access to CIA evidence and the COVID-19 pandemic have delayed justice for the surviving family members for more than two decades

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“More than 20 years after the 9/11 attacks and nearly 10 years after the arraignment of Khalid Sheik Mohammad and four others for the murder of nearly 3,000 individuals, the 9/11 case remains stuck in a pre-trial phase,” said 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. “Instead of being presented with evidence against the defendants, we have instead listened to arguments concerning more than 800 motions, and years of legal disputes over “discovery,” or what evidence will be admissible in a trial – should there ever be one.”

A plea deal, the organization argues, will bring to the families “finality” and would recognize the “torture” the defendants have allegedly endured in captivity.

“First and foremost a defendant would plead guilty and agree to never appeal his sentence,” the organization argued. “In exchange, the government would no longer seek the death penalty; this would be partly in recognition of the torture each of the defendants experienced. Once agreements are made with all five defendants, we would have assurance that the case of U.S. v. KSM, et.al. is closed, and some measure of judicial finality will be achieved.”

But according to Debra Burlingame, sister to American Airlines Flight 77 pilot Charles “Chic” Burlingame, who died when al Qaeda terrorists crashed his plane into the Pentagon, “finality” isn’t what is wanted.

“We didn’t have remains for weeks,” Burlingame told CBS News. “We were constantly saying to each other, ‘What would Chic want? What would Chic do?'”

Burlingame has spoken with other 9/11 families, and the notion of a plea deal is infuriating.

“The families are outraged,” she said. “They don’t want closure, they want justice.”

But James Connell, a defense attorney representing al-Baluchi, argues that the “forever trial” needs to end in medical care for the alleged terrorists.

“All five defendants and the government are all engaged in good faith negotiations, with the idea of bringing this trial which has become a forever trial to an end,” he said.

“Mr. al-Baluchi’s number one priority is obtaining medical care for his torture,” Connell continued. “In order to get that medical care, he is willing to plead guilty to a substantial sentence at Guantanamo in exchange for a guarantee of medical care and dropping the death penalty.”

Also on al-Baluchi’s legal team is human rights attorney Alka Pradhan, who claims al-Baluchi has “lasting brain damage” as a result of CIA interrogation tactics prior to the prisoners’ transfer to Guantanamo Bay in 2006.

“He had told us that his head was bashed against a wall repeatedly until he saw sparks and fainted,” Pradhan said. ” The result of that is, as we’ve had several medical experts examine him, is lasting brain damage .”

Taking the death penalty off the table is appropriate, Pradhan argued, because, “The United States government failed all of us after Sept. 11 in their decisions to use illegal techniques and illegal programs … In doing so, it rather corrupted all the legal processes.”

For Burlingame and many of the 9/11 families, however, there can be no justice if the defendants are allowed to live.

“I will not have closure as long as there is any possibility for some future president to commute their sentences or trade them away for something political that they want from some other country,” Burlingame said.  “That’s a very real possibility because it’s now been done over and over and over again.”

She fears “we’ve reached a point in our country where we just don’t seem to have … the courage of our convictions.”

Forgiveness, Burlingame said, is possible, “but not for them.”

“You have to truly take responsibility for what you’ve done,” she said. “And they will never do that.”

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