From left, Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali… (EPA )
U.S. NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — The arraignment of accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four top Al Qaeda lieutenants opened Saturday in a heavily guarded island courtroom with the so-called “Gitmo 5"” launching a silent protest, refusing to cooperate, listen to translations or even answer fundamental questions about a process that could end their lives.
The long-awaited trial began with defense lawyers speaking for the alleged terrorists and arguing that the protest was over their clients’ anger about alleged CIA torture and mistreatment at the prison on the southern rim of Cuba.
One of the lawyers, a woman wrapped in a black Islamic abaya, warned the judge that the protest represented the detainees' response to "these past eight years" and demonstrated their refusal to acknowledge American military law.
"What happened to these men has affected their ability to focus on these proceedings," said civilian attorney Cheryl Borman.
But Judge James Pohl, an Army colonel from Pepperdine University presiding in a high-backed chair with the seals of the U.S. Armed Forces on the wall behind him, pushed forward. He repeatedly insisted he would not allow the detainees, their protest or their silence to hijack the proceedings.
"He can participate or not, that's his choice," the judge said, referring to Mohammed.
"But he does not have a choice from moving this commission forward." But even as the judge spoke, and with the death penalty looming as their possible fate, the detainees merely looked way. One paged through a magazine. Another pretended he was reading an English law book. Sometimes they stood, one at a time, kneeling and bowing in quiet prayer.
[Updated at 10:14 a.m., May 5: Three hours into the hearing, one defendant wore down and angrily waved his finger at the judge. “Maybe you aren’t going to see me anymore,” warned Ramzi Binalshibh, who allegedly oversaw the terror cell for three of the Sept. 11 pilots. “It’s about the treatment we have received at the camps. You want to kill us.”]
The rocky start of the proceedings likely will further divide the opposing sides on whether a military tribunal on a faraway Caribbean island or a federal trial in the U.S. is the proper site for justice in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The fact that the trial is now underway encouraged backers of a military tribunal -- finally, some form of legal process has begun.
But for President Obama, who in 2008 promised to close the detainee prison and hold the trials in the U.S. yet did neither, the trial starkly reminds his supporters of his failure to change the system.
Mohammed sat closest to the judge. His beard is now shorter than its waist-length size of several years ago, and reflects a reddish glow. He, like the others, refused to wear the special earphones for translation and turned his head away when the court piped in the Arabic translation from loudspeakers.
He slumped deep in his chair, his face downcast, fingers occasionally picking at his glasses. His eyes shifted from disgust to boredom.
"He's deeply concerned about the fairness of this proceeding and the process that has brought us here," said his civilian attorney, David Nevin.
He said Mohammed did not want to cooperate because of past "torture," alluding to 183 episodes of waterboarding at a CIA "black" site.
"If he doesn't respond," Nevin told the judge, "it represents a choice on his part to decline to communicate with the court."
He added, "I can't force Mr. Mohammed to cooperate or not. What you are seeing here is a response to the way they were brought to this court and the way they have been treated in the camp."
Updated at 10:14 a.m., May 5: Nevin said, “What Mr. Mohammed has been through, and with all these shadowy figures around here, it is alarming and affects his ability to go forward with this arraignment.”]
The judge said that even if Mohammed had a perfect reason to refuse to cooperate, and everyone agreed it was reasonable, he was going to move forward with the trial.
"What difference does it make?" the judge said.
His courtroom at Camp Justice, inside a two-story building, is surrounded by heavy barbed and concertina wire, with the bay and sea nearby. Guards were positioned around the perimeter. Inside the courtroom, a phalanx of large, beefy soldiers in camouflage khakis and lace-up tan boots took seats lining the room.
The bearded defendants, in white tunics and head wraps, had been offered more formal Western suits and shirts to wear to court.
But prison officials told them "that is not happening" and Walid bin Attash, an alleged Al Qaeda training camp steward, was tied down to his chair in shoulder restraints.