Updated: Sep 18
By Reem Farhat Reporter/Producer,
and Nuri Illini Ahmad Camera/Producer
"How much longer are we all going to have to wait?"
When Elizabeth Miller was six years old, her father, firefighter Douglas C. Miller was killed during the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Over two decades later, Elizabeth, now 28 years old, is advocating for plea deals for the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, a United States military prison on the coast of Cuba that opened after 9/11.
The complex is infamous for testimonies of abuse and torture from detainees. Calls to have it shut down began shortly after it opened, and President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama have both made unfulfilled promises to close the facility.
Elizabeth has visited the prison three times, listened to oral arguments and pre-trial hearings, spoken to former detainees, and extensively studied the formation of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
For Elizabeth, plea deals for the five accused, five detainees accused of aiding in the 9/11 attacks who are being tried together, are the best path to finality.
A plea deal is an agreement between the defense and prosecutions where the defendants plead guilty and do not go to trial in exchange for less harsh punishments.
“Justice to me is reaching a plea deal, having those men be in prison and having them admit to what they did and when,” said Elizabeth. “The prolonging is for me very traumatic because it's like the wounds from 9/11 will always be open until this case is closed.”
Among the accused is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is often referred to as the alleged mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.
Plea deals would mean that none of these men would face the death penalty.
And although not all family members of those who died on 9/11 feel the same way, Elizabeth is not alone in her advocacy.
Elizabeth is the project director of 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a nonprofit organization composed of family members of people killed in the September 11 attacks whose mission is to “turn grief into action for peace” by advocating for nonviolence in the pursuit of justice following 9/11.
Since 2017, the organization has advocated for plea deals for prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
For Peaceful Tomorrows member Jessica Murphy, 27, plea deals are the best way forward because of the way detainees were treated by the United States.
“The possibility of justice is long gone because of the role of torture and the way these men and hundreds of other young men were kidnapped,” she said. “And for this case, specifically, what the five defendants experienced at black sites and the level of psychological and physical torture that they went through precluded any possibility of a fair trial.”
Since 2006, detainees have been stuck in a lengthy judicial process, partly because the torture detainees experienced at CIA black sites before going to Guantanamo made a lot of their confessions inadmissible in a court of law.
Pre-trial hearings have been ongoing to decide what evidence can and cannot be used in a court.
As family members of victims of 9/11, Jessica, Elizabeth, and other 9/11 families have the ability to visit the military base to witness these pretrial hearings. They’ve both attended in that capacity, and Elizabeth has visited as a representative of Peaceful Tomorrows.
Touching Down at Guantanamo
Jessica lost her father, Brian Joseph Murphy, when she was five years old. At the time of the attack, he was working at the World Trade Center.
As she grew older, Jessica felt uncomfortable with the US response to 9/11, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After learning more about Guantanamo Bay when she was in college, she felt compelled to visit.
“There were all of these government decisions that were allegedly made in the name of 9/11 victims. Given that my father was one of them, I felt some responsibility to speak out against that,” she said.
n 2018, she visited the military base with her younger sister Leila. Because of security measures, Jessica’s visit had to be exactly a week long, from Saturday to Sunday. A lot of the trip was shrouded in secrecy.
Victim family members, journalists, and other civilians watched court proceedings behind a thick layer of plexiglass. There is a 40 second delay to give officials time to redact any classified information, including defendants’ discussions of torture. During her visit, two of the five planned court hearing days were classified, meaning Jessica could not attend.
One detail that stuck out to Jessica was how “old and frail” the detainees looked.
Elizabeth Miller first’s significant exposure to Guantanamo Bay happened when she was in graduate school, studying Middle Eastern Studies. At the time, she read “Guantanamo Diary” a memoir by former Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi, detailing his detainment and experiences with torture.
Compelled by his story, Elizabeth sought to meet Mohamedou and they became quick friends. Knowing him made her first visit to Guantanamo Bay to watch pre-trial hearings in 2020 especially difficult.
“In Mohamedou’s diary, he details at one point where they bring him out onto the water in a boat and are kind of basically torturing him out in the middle of the water off Guantanamo,” said Elizabeth, who recalled swimming in the oceans on the military base to escape the sweltering heat. “I was swimming and I was like, I feel so guilty even swimming in this water that brought him pain.”
The torture adds another layer of complexity for Elizabeth.
“They did some terrible things, but so did we when we decided to torture them,” said Elizabeth. “I think they all have different levels of guilt and different levels of complicity. And to just put the death penalty on all of them, to me, it doesn't account for the torture that they experienced. It doesn't account for the fact that certain individuals like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did more than some of the others."
22 Years After the September 11 Attacks
Not all victim family members feel the same way. On August 21, 2023, 2,000 victim family members signed a letter to President Biden urging him to reject plea deals for the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
“We ask that you prioritize the interests of the victims of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks over those of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or other terrorists,” they write in their letter. “That you not bow to the demands of any embarrassed government officials willing to sacrifice transparency in favor of reputation; and that you continue to support us in our search for truth and justice.”
On September 6, Biden rejected the defendant’s conditions for plea deals. These demands included avoiding solitary confinement and having health treatment for injuries they say they sustained during CIA interrogations.
Negotiations are still ongoing, and it is unclear whether plea deals will move forward or if and when the cases will move to trial.
But for Elizabeth and other members of Peaceful Tomorrows, plea deals remain the only path forward and an avenue for answers amidst a process that has been prolonged and where a fair trial no longer seems like a possibility.