A prominent U.S. rights group urged the Obama administration on Sunday not to back down in the face of fierce opposition to its plans to try September 11 plotters in a civilian court in New York.
President Barack Obama's administration had announced it would try self-confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other accused at a New York courthouse just steps from where the World Trade Center once stood.
But the plan for the "trial of the century" met a backlash from Republican lawmakers who have introduced legislation to require a military trial, throwing a challenge to Obama months ahead of mid-term elections in November.
Obama made bringing Sheikh Mohammed to a civilian trial a centerpiece of a broader plan to end what he saw as serious abuses of law in the time of his predecessor George W. Bush and his powerful vice president Dick Cheney.
"What will it be Mr. President?" the American Civil Liberties Union asked in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times where a portrait of Obama gradually morphs into Bush. "Change or more of the Same?"
The Washington Post reported earlier this week that aides were recommending that Obama make a major U-turn to a military trial as part of a deal that could help him shut down the military prison in Guantanamo Bay.
A White House official said Friday it would need weeks to decide on the trial of the accused 9/11 co-conspirators.
Sheikh Mohammed and the other accused are detained at Guantanamo as they await trial over the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed close to 3,000 people, most in New York.
Human rights groups criticized any move for a military trial, saying it would not provide the due process and openness needed to bring legitimacy.
However the plan has seen growing opposition from groups criticizing the cost of security in Manhattan and in some cases the principle of providing civilian trials with greater protections for the alleged 9/11 plotters.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg changed his mind at the end of January after initially backing the civilian trial in Manhattan, suggesting that the highly sensitive case could instead proceed on a military base.
"As president, Barack Obama must decide whether he will keep his solemn promise to restore our Constitution and due process, or ignore his vow and continue the Bush-Cheney policies," the ACLU ad read.
ACLU executive director Anthony Romero also wrote a letter to Obama saying these were "the most important terrorism trials -- and arguably the most important criminal trials -- in the entire history of the nation.
"It would be a colossal mistake to reverse the administration's decision to try these defendants in federal criminal court and again relegate these landmark trials to irretrievably defective military commissions."
In its ad, the ACLU noted that the US criminal justice system has "successfully handled" more than 300 terror-related cases, compared to only three by military commission.
© AFP 2013