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Sept. 11 defendants hinder bid to close prison

WASHINGTON — Almost 14 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, their self-described mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is still awaiting trial, and the families of the victims are still awaiting justice.

Now, President Obama is renewing his effort to close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and Mohammed may prove the biggest obstacle.

While criticism in Congress has centered on the prospect that prisoners released to other countries may return to their suspected terrorist ways, there’s no exporting Mohammed. Efforts to prosecute the Al Qaeda strategist and four codefendants accused of plotting the attacks that killed almost 3,000 people remain entangled in procedural disputes at Guantanamo. ‘‘You might end up with Guantanamo being the Caribbean equivalent of the Spandau prison’’ in Berlin that was kept open for decades for a handful of Nazi war criminals after World War II, said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School.

Obama has sought since he took office in 2009 to close Guantanamo as a symbol of US abuses in the war against terrorism. As they prepare to send a new proposal to Congress as soon as this week, administration officials say about 64 of the 116 remaining prisoners — those deemed too dangerous to release abroad — would be transferred to the United States for prosecution or continued military detention.


Congress, however, has repeatedly barred bringing Guantanamo prisoners to the United States for military or civilian trials, and proposals to transfer Mohammed and the others facing potential death sentences for their alleged roles in the Sept. 11 attacks would create a political uproar.

A 2009 effort to transfer their case from the military justice system to federal court in New York fizzled after vehement opposition from Congress and New York City officials worried about security. A proposal to buy a prison in Illinois to house Guantanamo detainees produced a furor in that state, and the administration promised not to pursue it.


So, as Mohammed and the others remain mired in a legal quagmire at Guantanamo that’s all but certain to extend beyond Obama’s time in office, the victims’ families still wait.

‘‘I’m 83 and I’ve seen a lot,’’ said Rita Lasar, whose brother, Abraham Zelmanowitz, died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. ‘‘I don’t see how they keep on going year after year with nothing happening. I feel like it’s going down Alice’s rabbit hole.’’