WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Accused September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four suspected co-conspirators were directed on Wednesday to stand trial before a Guantanamo war crimes tribunal on charges that could carry the death penalty, the Pentagon said.
The five are accused of planning and executing the September 11, 2001, hijacked airliner attacks on New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, resulting in the deaths of 2,976 people.
They are charged with terrorism, hijacking aircraft, conspiracy, murder in violation of the law of war and other counts, and were referred to a capital military tribunal, meaning they could be sentenced to death if convicted, the Pentagon said.
The decision to refer the case to a military commission means the five will be arraigned before a military judge at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba within 30 days.
The referral of charges comes one year after President Barack Obama's administration abandoned efforts to try Mohammed and his four co-conspirators before a civilian court as he had promised and shifted the case to a military tribunal.
Attorney General Eric Holder blamed lawmakers for the policy reversal, saying their decision to block funding for prosecuting the September 11 suspects in a New York court had tied the administration's hands and forced it to move to a military trial.
The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the decision on Wednesday to proceed with a military trial.
"The Obama administration is making a terrible mistake by prosecuting the most important terrorism trials of our time in a second-tier system of justice," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement.
"Whatever verdict comes out of the Guantanamo military commissions will be tainted by an unfair process and the politics that wrongly pulled these cases from federal courts, which have safely and successfully handled hundreds of terrorism trials," he said.
(Reporting by David Alexander and Jane Sutton; Editing by Vicki Allen)