Military prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against six Al-Qaeda detainees on murder and conspiracy charges in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the Pentagon said Monday.
The Defense Department called the charges against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, and five others a "significant milestone."
But the move immediately came under fire from human rights groups, rekindling the heated controversy that has dogged the special process that the United States has put in place to try "war on terror" suspects.
Adding fuel to the reaction was the CIA's admission only a week ago that waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning widely denounced as torture, was used nearly five years ago in interrogations of Mohammed.
In announcing the charges, Brigadier General Thomas Hartmann said the military judge hearing the cases will determine whether the evidence presented is admissible.
"There will be no secret trials," said Hartmann.
"Every piece of evidence, every stitch of evidence, every whiff of evidence that goes to the finder of fact, to the jury, to the military tribunal will be reviewed by the accused, subject to confrontation, subject to cross-examination, subject to challenge," he said.
"The question of what other evidence will be admitted, whether waterboarding or otherwise, will be decided in the courts in front of a judge after it has been fought out by the defense and the prosecution."
Of the six, only Mohammed was subjected to waterboarding, according to CIA director Michael Hayden.
But five of the accused were part of a secret CIA interrogation program that included the use of other "enhanced" interrogation techniques.
Opponents of the military commissions, who have long charged that they are tilted in favor of "war on terror" convictions, said the trials would not be credible.
"They are unlawful, unconstitutional, and a perversion of justice," the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal rights group that has represented some "war on terror" detainees, said of the military commission trials.
"Now the government is seeking to execute people based on this utterly unreliable and tainted evidence: it is difficult to imagine a more morally reprehensible system," it said.
Human Rights Watch said the masterminds and planners of September 11 needed to be brought to justice, but not under a system that lacked credibility.
"Possibly putting someone to death based on evidence obtained through waterboarding, or after prolonged periods of sleep deprivation while being forced into painful stress positions, is not the answer," said Jennifer Daskal, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch.
US Attorney General Michael Mukasey acknowledged that the military trials have different rules from civilian courts, but he noted that the defendants could potentially appeal their cases all the way up to the Supreme Court.
"It may be possible that some evidence that might be excluded in a criminal trial might be admitted here," Mukasey told public television's "NewsHour" program.
Mohammed confessed in a military hearing last year to being the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.
The other accused are Walid bin Attash, who allegedly trained two hijackers; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, an alleged would-be hijacker who became a go-between after he was denied a US visa; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, a nephew of Mohammed, who allegedly helped finance the plot; Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who allegedly provided hijackers with money and western clothes; and Mohammed al-Qahtani, who has been labeled the alleged "20th hijacker."
All six were charged with conspiracy, murder in violation of the laws of war, attacking civilians, attacking civilian objects, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, destruction of property, terrorism, and material support for terrorism. Four were also charged with hijacking or hazarding an aircraft.
Susan Crawford, the convening authority for the trials, will review the evidence submitted by prosecutors and decide whether there is probable cause to refer the cases to trial.