GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- Noor Uthman Muhammed, an alleged al-Qaida trainer, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a pair of terrorism-related charges during a military commission hearing at Guantanamo Bay, the controversial detention facility that the Obama administration has promised -- but to date failed -- to close.
In a brief session this morning, Muhammed said he helped run a militant training camp in Afghanistan and conspired with al-Qaida in the years before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Muhammed, a Sudanese national who has been held at Guantanamo for almost nine years, will be sentenced on Wednesday by a panel of military personnel who are being flown in to effectively serve as the jury in the case.
Military prosecutors had initially said that Muhammed could face life in prison, but he is likely to receive a much shorter sentence, particularly since he has signaled a willingness to testify against other suspected terrorists. Still, the U.S. has reserved the right to hold him on security grounds even after his formal jail term comes to an end, so it’s not clear when or if he will leave Cuba.
The guilty plea makes Muhammed the sixth detainee to be convicted by a military tribunal at Guantanamo, the third since the Obama administration took office in 2009. There are currently about 170 prisoners being held there, including high-ranking militants such as suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
During today’s hearing in a heavily fortified military courtroom, Navy Capt. Moira Modzelewski, the presiding judge, asked Muhammed, a stocky man wearing a white prison jumpsuit and skull cap, if he understood the charges against him and was comfortable waiving his right to a full trial. Muhammed, who looked frail, quietly answered “Na’am” --Arabic for “Yes” -- in response to each question.
“Accordingly, your pleas of guilty are provident, and I accept them,” Modzelewski said before adjourning court until Wednesday morning.
Military prosecutors hailed Muhammed’s conviction, which they said offered further evidence that the military-commission system was an effective venue for trying accused militants.
“He is part of the apparatus of al-Qaida terrorism,” Navy Capt. John Murphy, the chief prosecutor for the military commissions, told reporters.
Muhammed was accused of helping to train militants from al-Qaida and other terror groups between 1996 and 2002, when he was captured in Pakistan and turned over to the U.S.
Military prosecutors said Muhammed was a weapons instructor at Khaldan, a large militant-training facility in Afghanistan, and later oversaw its daily operations as the facility’s deputy commander. Several of the 9/11 terrorists trained at Khaldan, along with scores of other al-Qaida operatives.
Today’s guilty plea short-circuits what could have been a difficult trial for military prosecutors. The tribunal system at Guantanamo Bay was explicitly designed to try militants accused of war crimes, but Muhammed helped run Khaldan in the late 1990s, years before the U.S. effectively declared war on al-Qaida in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
“The crimes Noor allegedly committed -- material support of terrorism and conspiracy -- are not traditional law of war violations typically tried in military commissions,” Raha Wala, a legal fellow with Human Rights First, argued in a 2010 essay. “Attempts by Congress to codify material support and conspiracy as war crimes may very well be seen as imposing ex post facto punishment, with military commissions serving as a venue for trying individuals like Noor for ‘war crimes’ that simply didn't exist at the time these alleged unlawful acts took place.”
Murphy acknowledged that the U.S had no current plans to try any other detainees before a military tribunal. Senior American officials opened military-commission proceedings against six detainees, and Muhammed was the last member of that initial group whose legal fate had yet to be decided.
The broader fate of Guantanamo itself, meanwhile, remains just as much in doubt. President Obama fiercely criticized the detention facility during the 2008 campaign and signed an executive order on his first day in office promising to close it down within a year. The White House said it was looking to begin moving Guantanamo Bay detainees to a prison in Illinois, and Attorney General Eric Holder said he would hold civilian trials in New York City for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other accused 9/11 plotters.
But the administration’s plans to shutter Guantanamo faded amid unrelenting opposition on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers in both parties teamed up to ensure that no money could be spent on renovating prisons in the U.S. to hold Guantanamo detainees. The White House later overruled Holder and dropped the idea of trying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in New York.
More recently, the administration signaled that it would soon clear the way for opening new military-commission proceedings against other detainees at Guantanamo, an unspoken acknowledgement that the prison will remain open for business well into the future -- and that Muhammed’s guilty plea today won’t be the last time a detainee sees the inside of a military courtroom here.
Correction. An earlier version of this report incorrectly reported the day on which the plea was entered. It was entered on Tuesday.