View from Guantanamo: Families of 9/11 Victims Frustrated by Pace of Trials

By Brigid Bergin WNYC

A new set of pre-trial motions for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other men accused of plotting the September 11 terror attacks starts Monday. The five are being tried before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay. In January 2009, Retired Deputy New York City Fire Chief Jim Riches attended the proceedings. He was one of about a dozen family members picked from a lottery to see the trial of alleged mastermind of the attacks that killed his son and almost 3,000 others.

“We were in the courtroom behind the plexi-glass and we could look in and see the whole trial,” he said. But while he was there the trial was stopped. President Barack Obama signed an executive order suspending the military trials at Guantanamo Bay.

What followed was legal and political haggling, including a heated debate over whether to bring the accused terrorists to New York City to face federal trial in civilian court.

Eventually, President Obama reversed his decision and the military trials resumed. Riches met with the president after his trip to Guantanamo. He says he was promised “swift and certain justice.”

Four years later, Riches sat in a corner booth at the Fort Hamilton diner just across the street from the last stop of the Brooklyn R train. He held up a picture of his 29-year-old son, Jimmy, wearing his dress uniform. Jimmy Riches was a fireman, like his father. He worked for Engine 4 in Lower Manhattan, and was in the North Tower when it came down.

“It’s very difficult,” explains Riches who describes finding his son’s body crushed in a stairway along with other men from his company. Riches’ family has grown since then, with marriages and births, but he said life will never be the same.

“You always miss him. What would Jimmy do if he was here, he lit up the room everybody is like, ‘whoa, Jimmy’s here.’ He was a character,” Riches recalled. Jimmy was the oldest of four brothers. An all-City basketball player who continued to play ball at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, where his number 20 was retired just this past weekend. “It tears your heart out and you just, you miss him every day no matter what.”

As lawyers present pre-trial motions this week, Riches believes something is wrong.

“You know, I’m not saying take the guy out and string up and hang ’em. You know, let’s hear the process, let’s get it going,” he said. “But 10 years later, we’re still at square one.”

It’s not exactly square one, though, says Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School. She understands Riches’ frustration “from the point of view of somebody who just cannot believe that we haven’t tried these individuals in such a long amount of time.” But says there are a myriad of reasons the legal process is moving at such pace, including the fact that officials are creating the legal process at the same time that they’re using it.

“If you understand how complicated a trial is and then you make a trial about something of such magnitude,” she explained, “You see how creating the process and living inside at the same time is very hard.”

For this week’s round of pre-trial motions being heard by the military commission, Phyllis Rodriguez was one of the family members picked to go to Guantanamo. Her 31-year-old son, Gregory, worked in the IT department of the investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

When she remembers that September morning, she thinks of all the messages on her answering machine from friends asking whether her son was alright. And then there was the one from Greg.

“He said, ‘Um, I’m at the Trade Center. There’s been a disaster. I’m ok’,” she said.

He never came home.

Rodriguez says going to Guantanamo is important to her for several reasons.

“First and foremost, I’m going there because the trials are there or the hearings are there,” she said. She, along with the other families going, also plans to meet with the judge the chief prosecutor. “But we’re also going to meet with members of the five defense teams, and I’m particularly interested in that.”

She’s is a member of a group called September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. In the years since her son’s death, she’s tried to channel her energy towards an organization that works for nonviolent causes around the world.

As lawyers on both sides have been working hard for justice, she says she believes the process has been flawed. And for her, justice doesn’t equate to closure.

“We’re not going to get closure because [that] implies you can say, ‘ok, I’m over my grief.’ It doesn’t work that way. We’re going to live with it the rest of our lives. Putting someone on trial, putting him to death, giving them a life in prison or indefinite detention, that doesn’t make me feel any better,” she explained.

It’s a delicate balance, Rodriguez says, living with the loss and the grief. That will be with her as she sits through the military commission. She expects there will be times during the hearings where she won’t want to talk [to] anyone but other families traveling down to the hearings. She also expects the days to be long with few breaks.

This round of hearings will run through the end of the week, and another pre-trial hearing is already scheduled for February. A new lottery will pick which victim’s [sic] families can attend. And it’s a cycle that will continue until the lawyers finish presenting all their motions.

According to experts, the actual trial for the five men accused of plotting the attacks may not start until sometime next year.

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