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Sept. 11 terrorism trial at Guantanamo gets off to a silent start

May 05, 2012|By Richard A. Serrano | This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details
  • In this photo of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin and reviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed reads a document during his military hearing at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Saturday May 5, 2012.
In this photo of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin and reviewed by… (Janet Hamlin / Associated…)

U.S. NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the boisterous, boastful self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, sat in a small blue chair for hours Saturday at the opening of his capital murder military trial -- holding his tongue.

As the day wore on, it became increasingly clear that Mohammed and the other defendants were deliberately staging a group protest, one without words, aimed at both confounding the U.S. military court system here and demonstrating to the outside world that they do not acknowledge the United States' control over them.

Mohammed, his beard trimmed shorter and dyed henna orange, often lowered his head and slumped deep into the chair. He occasionally fidgeted with his glasses. His eyes expressed neither the old outrage nor the amusement of his last court appearance here four years ago.

Two of the other defendants abruptly leaped to their feet at one point, but only to stand, kneel and lie on the gray carpeting in prayer. No words escaped their lips.

One defendant, the alleged head of the terrorist cell for three of the four Sept. 11 pilots, nonchalantly flipped through The Economist magazine. Another pretended to read what appeared to be a thick hard-cover English law book. Yet another feigned sleep.

Saturday’s arraignment was expected to draw bombastic pleas of guilt or innocence from the five top Al Qaeda operatives known collectively as the Gitmo 5.

The charges include conspiracy, murder in violation of the law, hijacking aircraft and terrorism. The charge sheet itself is 87 pages long. Several of the defense lawyers said their clients wanted each page read; Mohammed’s attorney said he did not. The judge declined to read the thick document, saying it would only unnecessarily delay things.

Judge James Pohl asked each of the five men how they pleaded to the charges – guilty or not guilty, or whether they chose to defer announcing their plea until later. None of them spoke. Instead, each of their attorneys said they were deferring their pleas.

The highly anticipated military commission trial is the most serious to be launched under the new rules imposed by the Obama administration. With Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden dead for a year, the trial might be the biggest national security event going.

Court rules disallow evidence seized by torture or other inhumane treatment. The issue looms as a critical political test for Obama, who won the White House in part by pledging to close the Guantanamo prison and move the trials to the U.S. He did neither.

The last time Mohammed and his inner circle appeared in a courtroom here was four years ago. They brazenly bragged of their past deeds and asked the U.S. to make them martyrs. “This is what I wish!” Mohammed said.

This time, when they refused to answer questions from Judge Pohl, the case moved to pretrial motions and other legal matters, a sign that the court took their non-compliance to mean that they were pleading not guilty and wanted the case to move forward.

The accused terrorists also did not fire their defense attorneys, which they had done or tried to do in the past. And the lawyers took that cue to quickly argue that their clients’ silence evoked their deep mistrust in the U.S. military law.

They were protesting, the lawyers said, past “torture” at a CIA black site -- Mohammed allegedly was waterboarded 183 times -- and harsh mistreatment at this detainee prison on the southern rim of Cuba.

“What happened to these men has affected their ability to focus on these proceedings,” said Cheryl Bormann, dressed in a black Islamic abaya.

She even suggested that some female soldiers and lawyers who came to court in skirts exposed too much leg and deeply offended the religious virtues of the five defendants.

Judge Pohl, an Army colonel from Pepperdine University, sat in a high-backed chair with the seals of the U.S. Armed Forces on the wall behind him. As night came on, he swayed back and forth. Sometimes he expressed deep frustration, other times anger, still other times a keen determination to keep the case on track.

“He can participate or not; that’s his choice,” the judge said, referring to Mohammed sitting mute. “But he does not have a choice from moving this commission forward.”

The tension was cut once. Three hours into the hearing, Ramzi Binalshib, the alleged pilot cell manager, waved his finger and burst out at the judge. “Maybe you aren’t going to see me anymore and they’ll say it was a suicide.”

He compared life at Camp Justice in Guantanamo to the brutal reign of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi. “It’s about the treatment we have received at the camps,” he said. “You want to kill us.”

The judge asked for silence, and Binalshib quickly went quiet.

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