The rocky start of the proceedings probably will further divide opposing sides on whether a military tribunal on a faraway Caribbean island or a federal trial in the United States is the proper site for justice in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Just the fact that it is at last underway cheered those in favor of a military tribunal.
But for supporters of Obama, who in 2008 promised to close the detainee prison and hold the trials in the U.S., the trial starkly reminds them of the president's failure to change the system.
Moments after the 9 a.m. gavel, the hearing began with a translation problem. Mohammed, sitting closest to the judge, removed his earphones and so did the rest. When the Arabic was piped in through loud speakers, it was so jarring and overlapped the lawyers and the judge that exasperated translators complained they could not keep up.
Mohammed did not appear to care.
“He’s deeply concerned about the fairness of this proceeding and the process that has brought us here,” said his civilian attorney, David Nevin.
His client did not want to participate because of past “torture,” the lawyer 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,” Nevin said.
So, he told the judge, “If he doesn’t respond, it represents a choice on his part to decline to communicate with the court.”
The judge said that even if Mohammed had a perfect reason to refuse to cooperate and everyone agreed it were reasonable, he as the judge was going to move forward with the trial. “What difference does it make?” the judge said.
The courthouse is surrounded by heavy barbed and concertina wire. Guards were positioned around the perimeter. Inside the courtroom, a phalanx soldiers in camouflage khakis and lace-up tan boots took seats nearest the defendants.
The alleged terrorists, all of them bearded and wearing white tunics and head wraps, had been offered more formal Western suits and shirts to wear to court. Walid bin Attash, an alleged Al Qaeda training camp steward, was tied down to his chair in shoulder restraints.
His attorney said Attash was in pain, but authorities gave no reason for the restraints, other than to say he acted up while being moved from his holding cell to the courtroom. When he later agreed to cooperate, the restraints were lifted. Then he refused to cooperate by sitting in silence.
Guards did bring him a prosthetic leg to wear, however.
Also in the large, expansive courtroom were Ammar al Baluchi, aka Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, a college-trained computer engineer, alleged Al Qaeda financier and Mohammed’s nephew; and Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi, another alleged financier.
Ten victims and relatives of those who died in the attacks were chosen by lottery from among 250 to attend the start of the trial. Though they said they were here to “put a face on the evil” of that day, they remained mixed on whether a military commission was the right setting to litigate the worst terrorist event in U.S. history.
“I would have preferred this would have been in federal court,” said Blake Allison of Lyme, N.H., whose 49-year-old wife, Anna, was aboard the first plane that hit the first tower. “The public needs to see how in the world you could defend these horrible criminals, and how the prosecutor will be able to prove to the country and the world this is a fair and just system.”
Disagreeing was Christina Russell from Rockaway Beach, N.Y., whose brother-in-law Stephen Russell, a New York fireman, died. She said, simply, “This is the right place for this.”
For the record, 6:10 p.m. May 5: An earlier version of this post misspelled the last name of defense attorney Cheryl Bormann.
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