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Trial Date Still Pending For 5 Accused Of Plotting Sept. 11 Attacks


We have an update now on a story that's been going on for years. At the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, five men imprisoned there are accused of plotting the September 11 terrorist attacks. The military commission that is to try them meets only infrequently. NPR's David Welna traveled to Guantanamo this weekend to cover the latest session of that court. He's with us now on the line to talk about where things stand. David, thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: So tell us a little bit about where you are right now.

WELNA: Well, you know, I'm talking to you from a trailer inside a big old airplane hangar that's next to a big airfield that hasn't been used for decades. For the last 9 years, there's been a kind of tent city occupying that part of the airstrip. And that's where we reporters who cover these proceedings stay. The call it Camp Justice.

MARTIN: So you were there a year ago. What's happened in the long story of putting these 9-11 defendants on trial?

WELNA: Not much since then. There have been only two war court sessions for this case since I was here last February. A lot of the time has been spent over this past year arguing over the military judge's order that female guards not be used to escort these defendants to the courtroom since these men say their religion forbids touching any women not related to them. There have also been arguments over censorship of court transcripts. And like most of the nearly 4000 motions that have been filed so far in this case over nearly four years, none of these are directly related to the thrust of this proceeding, which is to execute those found guilty of plotting the 9-11 attacks.

MARTIN: So what do we expect for this latest round of proceedings, the reason you're there?

WELNA: You know, there are supposed to be nine days of court sessions over the next couple of weeks. And there's going to be a lot more wrangling over simply how to move forward. One of the defendants wants permission from the judge to fire his civilian lawyers, saying he can't trust anyone anymore. A defense lawyer may try to stop the whole proceeding because his interpreter has his top secret clearance taken away from him. But the main issue in this session will be the ongoing fight over how much information the prosecution should provide the defense team in its effort to keep these five men from being executed. A lot of that information is classified, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that they were tortured by the CIA, as a Senate report has already documented.

MARTIN: So David, in the minute that we have left, given all of this, do we have any sense of when we'll see an actual trial of the accused 9-11 plotters?

WELNA: Well, you know, I put that question to both the prosecution and the defense this weekend. The prosecution does not want to even guess, and the defense is estimating it'll be at least another five years before this even comes to trial. And in the meantime, President Obama wants to move this whole operation up to the United States and close Guantanamo, so lots of uncertainties lie ahead.

MARTIN: And as the president has said he's - since the beginning of his administration has wanted to close the prison in Guantanamo. How many people remain there?

WELNA: There are 91 captives still here in Guantanamo. That's down from more than 600 during the Bush administration. And almost all of them have been held here without charges for 14 years. Thirty-four of them have been certified by a parole-type board as eligible for transfer. But because most of them come from Yemen, it's been very difficult to find a place to send them. There are 10 people who are charged of the remaining detainees. The others, it's not clear what's going to happen to them. President Obama wants to move them to the United States, but that's currently forbidden by law. And Congress may be presented with a plan to do this this coming week, and it's certain to reject that. And so it's not clear how President Obama might proceed from there.

MARTIN: That's NPR's David Welna, reporting to us from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 15, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous headline incorrectly said a trial date was pending for nine accused in the attacks. There are five awaiting trial.
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.