The World

May 13, 2008 2:54 PM

Charges Dropped Against "Twentieth Hijacker"

Posted by Daphne Eviatar

Last night, the Pentagon confirmed that it has dropped charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi detainee imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay who the U.S. government previously claimed was the "twentieth hijacker" in the September 11 attacks. Al-Qahtani did not actually participate in the attacks; he was denied entry to the U.S. by an immigration officer.

Susan Crawford, the convening authority for the military commissions, has decided to move forward with the charges against the five others accused of plotting the attacks, all of whom will face the death penalty. Crawford dismissed the charges against al-Qahtani on Friday without prejudice, meaning she can still bring them later. She did not provide any further explanation for her actions.

The American Lawyer previously reported on the charges against the six men accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks, and on the Office of Military Commissions not having enough death penalty-qualified lawyers to represent them.

Al-Qahtani has said he was tortured and humiliated at Guantánamo--beaten, restrained, sleep-deprived, threatened with dogs, subjected to freezing-cold temperatures, and stripped nude in front of women. He has also recanted his earlier confession. The Military Commissions Act allows military prosecutors to use evidence obtained by coercion and torture in some circumstances, so long as the evidence is obtained again later in another manner.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents Al-Qahtani, said today: "The government is finally admitting what we have been saying all along, that the government's claims against our client were based on unreliable evidence obtained through torture at Guantánamo. Using torture to string together a web of so-called evidence is illegal, immoral, and cannot be the basis for a fair trial."

But Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Office of Military Commissions, insists that "the government can reinitiate charges against him at any time."  The decision not to proceed with the charges now, he adds, "is in no way a reflection of the evidence against Mr. Qahtani."

Military defense lawyers have recently been appointed to represent the detainees still facing capital charges, says DellaVedova. The ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have also organized a group of experienced criminal defense lawyers who are willing to assist the detainees' military lawyers.

A full list of these volunteer defense attorneys and their bios can be found at the ACLU's Web site.

But the NACDL says the lawyers are facing huge obstacles. The "NACDL's capital defense teams are still awaiting the security clearances and final military approval they need before they will be allowed to deploy to Guantánamo," said NACDL Executive Director Norman Reimer today. "We need [the Department of Defense] to clear the decks of all bureaucratic hurdles so that that the accused will have access to the vital services to which all capital defendants are entitled to under our system of government."

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