Wayne parents of 9/11 victim heading to Cuba for terror trial

By Shawn Boburg The Record

Tom and Josephine Acquaviva hold a photo of their son, Paul. photo by Elizabeth Lara

Tom and Josephine Acquaviva will travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Monday for an opportunity to stare into the eyes of five men accused of murdering their son and thousands of other 9/11 victims. The trip is also a search for justice.

“To me, justice is death,” Tom Acquaviva of Wayne said late last week, while sitting at his dining room table, flanked by his wife and pictures of his 29-year-old son, Paul Acquaviva, who worked in the World Trade Center. “That’s the only justice that’s appropriate. They killed 3,000 people. They have to pay the penalty.”

The Acquavivas were preparing to board a military plane this morning bound for the U.S. naval base, where five detainees stand charged of planning and carrying out the 9/11 attacks. They could be sentenced to death if convicted by a military commission. The Wayne couple were among 10 family members of September 11 victims randomly chosen to attend preliminary hearings for a terrorism trial that is more than a decade in the making and potentially years from resolution. It has been delayed by false starts and debate over whether to hold the trials in U.S. courts or before a military commission.

The Acquavivas say the primary purpose of their weeklong trip is to get an in-person glimpse of the five accused, including the self-described mastermind of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

“I want to see them in the flesh,” Tom Acquaviva said. “It’s just important to me, for some strange reason.”

During this week’s proceedings, which focus on pretrial motions, the families will sit in an adjacent area in the high-security courtroom, separated by a pane of Plexiglas. Audio will be carried into the room with a 10-second delay, giving the military commission the opportunity to cut off the feed if classified information is discussed. Sitting on the other side of the glass will be Mohammed, Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin ‘Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi.

The military’s prosecution, which began in May with the men’s arraignment, started with signs that the defendants may be less than cooperative. At the arraignment, the men refused to wear headphones providing Arabic translation, according to media reports. Mohammed ignored questions by a military commission judge. And ‘Attash knelt in the courtroom during the arraignment to pray, and later shouted at a commission judge about prison conditions.

Josephine Acquaviva’s feelings about the trip are more mixed than her husband’s: She wants to face the men who allegedly plotted the attacks, but she knows it will stir up more pain, she explained while tearing up. She said she also wants to see the compound where the detainees are being held.

“People say it’s so awful,” she said. “I want to see with my own eyes.”

The Acquavivas and the other families will be provided with housing on the base.

Other family members will watch the six scheduled days of proceedings, from Wednesday through next Tuesday, via closed-circuit television shown only at Fort Meade in Maryland, said Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale of the U.S. Defense Department.

Different family members will be chosen for future proceedings during the ongoing trial, Breasseale said. The Acquavivas fear it will last years.

“What’s interesting is, these guys were all captured in Pakistanin 2002 and 2003,” Tom Acquaviva said. “Now, it’s 2012. Finally. And this is just [pretrial] motions.”

This is the second U.S.attempt to prosecute the five detainees.

President Obama’s administration withdrew previous charges and tried to move the trial to a federal civilian court in lower Manhattan as part of an effort to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay. But the administration reversed course due to opposition in Congress and from New  York City officials who were concerned about security.

Josephine Acquaviva said she believes that was the right decision. But the Acquavivas, now in their 70s, worry that they won’t see a resolution in their lifetimes.

“What I don’t get is that they’ve admitted that they did it,” said Tom Acquaviva. “This whole trial is to show the world we’re giving them a trial. We have to show we’re a country of laws and justice. But my son hasn’t gotten justice yet. He’s dead. What justice is there for us? We lost our only son.”

The military commission has charged the five men with terrorism, hijacking an aircraft, conspiracy, murder, and several other crimes. The 88-page charge sheet lists all 2,976 victims by name.

The 12-member military commission must unanimously agree to issue a death sentence. A conviction and a lesser sentence would require only a two-thirds vote. A guilty verdict is then referred to a military review court. Either party can appeal the review court’s decision to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and, ultimately, to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the Defense Department website.

No outcome will replace what was lost, the Acquavivas say. But they are quick to shift attention away from their grief.

“We focus on my boy, what he lost,” said Tom Acquaviva. That includes a daughter who was 2 when her father died and a wife who was pregnant and later gave birth to a boy. The Acquavivas said they get joy from keeping the memory of their son alive, through a college scholarship in his name at Wayne Valley High School and by telling stories of his accomplishments and the people he touched. An athlete and top student in high school, Paul Acquaviva went on to Rutgers and Columbia Law School before becoming a senior vice president with Cantor Fitzgerald.

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