It could be years before Khalid Sheikh Mohammed finally goes on trial for the Sept 11, 2001, attacks. But that hasn't stopped Barack Obama from confidently predicting that he will be convicted - and executed.
"I don't think it will be offensive at all when he's convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him," the U.S. President said Wednesday before leaving China.
In a day of startling comments over pending terrorism trials, the top justice official - Attorney-General Eric Holder - made it equally clear that Mr. Mohammed won't walk free, even if a New York City jury fails to convict him or a federal court judge tosses out the case.
Last week, when Mr. Holder trumpeted the decision to pursue justice against high-profile al-Qaeda detainees in civilian courts on U.S. soil, it was heralded by some as removing some of the tarnish from America's reputation for Bush-era policies. But, in Mr. Holder's testimony Wednesday and in the President's blunt prediction that Mr. Mohammed will be executed, it has become increasingly clear that that the break with the past may be more symbolic than real. Mr. Obama also conceded that his promise to close the notorious Guantanamo prison by January will not be met, underscoring the struggle to forge a way out of the legacy of the Bush years.
Facing a wave of critics warning of the risks of putting Mr. Mohammed on trial, Mr. Holder bluntly asserted that "failure isn't a option" when asked during a Congressional hearing whether Mr. Mohammed and other key terrorist suspects will be convicted. Acquittals, claims of asylum and even judicial orders freeing them won't result in releases, he asserted.
"If there is not a successful conclusion to this trial, that would not mean that this person would be released," Mr. Holder bluntly told the Congressional hearing, referring to Mr. Mohammed - the self-proclaimed planner of the Sept 11, 2001, suicide hijackings.
"What if a federal judge orders the Department of Justice to release Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?" Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn asked. "Will you defy that order?"
Mr. Holder made it clear that by moving Mr. Mohammed to a prison offshore - such as Bagram in Afghanistan, where hundreds of detainees are held - a release order could be circumvented.
"We have taken the view that the judiciary does not have the ability necessarily to certainly require us to, with people who are held overseas, to release them," he said. "It's hard for me to imagine a set of circumstances, given the other things that we could do with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed" that would result in him being freed," the Attorney-General said.
"Under the regime we are contemplating … the ability to detain under laws of war, we would retain that ability," Mr. Holder added, meaning anyone freed by the courts could simply be returned as an enemy combatant to indefinite military detention.
Mr. Obama, a former law professor, denied he was interfering with Mr. Mohammed's right to a fair trial. "I'm not prejudging it," he said in a televised NBC interview. "I'm not going to be in that courtroom. That's the job of the prosecutors, the judge and the jury," he said.
Last spring, Mr. Obama said he wasn't getting rid of the Bush administration's widely condemned policy of indefinite detention. The new President, who vowed on his first full day in the Oval Office to shutter the Guantanamo prison, said every effort would be made to put detainees on trial. But, he added: "There may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States."
Wednesday, Mr. Obama conceded what has been evident for months, that the one-year deadline for closing the prison camp - originally picked to deny terrorist suspects recourse to U.S. legal rights - won't be met, blaming Congress for the delay.
"As usual in Washington, things move slower than I anticipated. I would anticipate that Guantanamo will be closed next year, [but]I'm not going to set an exact date because a lot of this is also going to depend on co-operation from Congress," he said in a television interview while visiting China.
The Obama administration's decision to bring some high-profile suspects to New York for trial in civilian courts while leaving others - like Canadian Omar Khadr, accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier - to face trial by military tribunals where the accused have fewer rights, has been denounced by critics on both left and right.
"I believe this decision is dangerous," said Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican "I believe it's misguided. I believe it is unnecessary. It represents a departure from our long-standing policy that these kind of cases should be treated under the well established rules of war."
Rights groups and lawyers working for the detainees that spearheaded the effort that led to successive Supreme Court rulings against the military tribunals continue to demand better from Mr. Obama.
"It is troubling that the administration will miss its January deadline for closing the Guantanamo prison, which has become a symbol of American lawlessness and human-rights violations. Guantanamo will continue to be a stain on our reputation for as long as it remains open," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.Report Typo/Error