Accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, right, consults defense… (Janet Hamlin / Miami Herald…)
WASHINGTON -- The approach of Tropical Storm Isaac has prompted the delay of pretrial hearings for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other alleged top Al Qaeda operatives -- set to begin Thursday at the U.S. Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- and attorneys, legal staff and members of the media are being evacuated.
The storm, expected to hit the island this weekend -- and then possibly Florida by Monday, at the start of the GOP national convention in Tampa -- led Army judge Col. James L. Pohl to postpone the session citing "impending weather conditions, the recommendation that all non-permanent party personnel depart the island, and a concern for the safety and welfare of all personnel."
Pohl plans to reschedule the session in the near future, officials said.
The hearings are designed for the judge to rule on numerous key disputes in the capital murder trial for those accused of planning, financing and preparing for the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The issues before the court center on whether a top CIA official who oversaw the waterboarding of Mohammed should be compelled to testify about the harsh interrogation technique and whether public comments by former President George W. Bush and members of his administration so prejudiced the defendants' right to a fair trial that the case itself should be thrown out.
Also at issue is the often-belligerent courthouse demeanor of Mohammed and the others, and whether they have been treated inhumanely after years at the island prison.
The hearings will mark the first time the defendants have been in court since May, when they appeared for a marathon arraignment session on an 87-page charge sheet that included accusations of conspiracy, murder, aircraft hijacking and terrorism.
About 3,000 people died in the attacks in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, and the charges carry the death penalty. A trial is tentatively scheduled for next May.
Mohammed is the accused mastermind of the attacks, serving under then-Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The others are Ramzi Binalshib, the alleged pilot cell manager; Walid bin Attash, an alleged Al Qaeda training camp steward; and Ammar al Baluchi, a.k.a. Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi, both alleged Al Qaeda financiers.
Together, the so-called Gitmo 5 have at various times declared their innocence, refused to acknowledge the authority of the military commission process and staged protests inside the courtroom.
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