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Sept. 11 terrorism trial opens at Guantanamo

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the terrorist attacks, and four other defendants sit through the hours-long hearing mostly in silent protest.

May 05, 2012|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau
  • A courtroom sketch captures the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, at a military commission hearing in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A courtroom sketch captures the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept.… (Janet Hamlin, McClatchy-Tribune )

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

As Saturday wore on, it became clear that Mohammed and the four other defendants were staging a silent protest, aimed at both confounding the U.S. military court system here and demonstrating to the outside world that they do not acknowledge America's control over them.

Mohammed, his beard 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 other defendants abruptly leapt to their feet at one point, but only to stand, kneel and lie on the gray carpeting in prayer.

One defendant, the alleged head of the terrorist cell for three of the four Sept. 11 pilots, nonchalantly flipped through the Economist magazine. Another feigned sleep.

The arraignment was expected to draw bombastic pleas of guilty or not guilty from the top Al Qaeda operatives known as the Gitmo 5. But when Judge James Pohl asked each of the men how he pleaded, none of them spoke. Instead, their attorneys said the men were deferring their pleas.

The charges include conspiracy, murder, aircraft hijacking and terrorism. The charge sheet is 87 pages long and includes the names of the nearly 3,000 people who died the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. When defense lawyers said two of the detainees wanted the charge sheet read aloud in court, the judge said that was their right. For the next several hours, late into the night, it was read both in English and Arabic, a paragraph at a time. The hearing finally ended more than 13 hours after it began.

Pohl scheduled a motions hearing for June 12 to begin sorting out what evidence and testimony will be allowed in the trial. He discussed a tentative trial date in May 2013.

The highly anticipated military commission proceeding is the most serious to be launched under the new rules imposed by the Obama administration. Under the rules, information derived from torture is not allowed and defense attorneys cannot bring up anything their clients tell them, for fear classified information will be revealed.

The beginning of the trial is the biggest public national security event since the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden a year ago. It could have political repercussions 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, they 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 Pohl, he moved on to pretrial motions and other legal matters. The defense attorneys argued that their clients' silence indicated their deep mistrust of U.S. military law.

They were protesting past interrogation techniques at a CIA black site, the lawyers said — Mohammed 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, a Chicago criminal defense lawyer who surprised onlookers by appearing in the courtroom 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.

Pohl, an Army colonel who received his law degree 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 fell, 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."

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 said.

He compared life at Camp Justice in Guantanamo to the brutal reign of longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi, who was killed in October. "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.

Moments after the 9 a.m. gavel, Mohammed, sitting closest to the judge, and the others removed their earphones. When the Arabic was piped in through loudspeakers, it was so jarring and overlapped the lawyers and the judge that exasperated translators complained they could not keep up.

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