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9/11 defense team says Guantanamo tribunal is unjust

Civilian lawyers argue that the military system is rigged to put Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his four codefendants to death. A prosecutor defends the process.

May 06, 2012|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau
  • An artist's rendering shows Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks, talking to his attorney during a break in his military commission hearing at Guantanamo Bay.
An artist's rendering shows Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, accused of masterminding… (Janet Hamlin, Miami Herald )

U.S. NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — The defense team for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, now formally charged with capital murder in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, on Sunday angrily called the military commission legal process a political "regime" set up to put him and his four accused collaborators to death.

David Nevin, Mohammed's civilian attorney, said new rules imposed under the Obama administration barred the lawyers from discussing with their clients whether they were mistreated by U.S. authorities and, in the case of Mohammed, tortured after their arrests eight years ago.

"We are operating under a regime here," Nevin said. "We are forbidden from talking to our clients about very important matters.

"And now the government wants to kill Mr. Mohammed. They want to extinguish the last eyewitness so he can never talk about his torture. They want the political cover so he'll be convicted and executed."

According to CIA accounts and other documents, Mohammed was subjected to waterboarding 183 times at a classified CIA "black site" before he was moved to the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

On Saturday, he and four Sept. 11 codefendants were formally arraigned on conspiracy, terrorism and murder charges. They deferred entering pleas of guilt or innocence, with the government planning to ultimately seek five death sentences. The trial is tentatively set to begin in May 2013.

Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor, said Sunday that the public should remember Sept. 11, 2001, and what happened that morning when nearly 3,000 people died at New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon outside Washington and a field in western Pennsylvania.

"The enemy force was sophisticated, patient, disciplined and lethal," he said.

But Martins also vigorously defended the military tribunal process, saying it was fair to both sides.

"However long the journey — and the arraignment was only the start of a legal process that could take many months — the United States is committed to gaining accountability for those who attacked and killed innocent people," he said.

Martins said defense lawyers could talk to their clients but could not show them classified documents that disclosed harsh treatment. Otherwise, he said, "they can talk to their clients about anything."

He added that even if there was some form of torture, it should not "pollute" the entire case.

"The remedy is not to just dismiss all the charges," he said. "It does not mean that everybody goes free, that everybody is free of accountability just because somebody else did something wrong. That's not good."

Rather, he said, it is important for the case to proceed and the public to decide its fairness.

"This will be in the highest traditions of our country," Martins said. "It's important that people realize that this will be done methodically and patiently. Justice in every society is methodical, determined and patient."

On the accusation that prosecutors are purposely seeking the death penalty, Martins said their goal was simply to submit the case to a jury of 12U.S. militaryservice members.

"That's what we want," he said. "That's justice, I believe. It will be a real jury, and we will trust this thing with them. These people will be impartial, and that's what's going to happen.

"This death penalty stuff is premature. We are trying to put this through the process."

Martins also defended women on his prosecution team who he said were dressed appropriately at the arraignment Saturday. He was responding to complaints from Cheryl Bormann, a Chicago defense attorney for Walid bin Attash who wore a long black abaya to court.

On Sunday, she said her client was offended by women who did not dress in conservative Islamic attire, feeling that it caused him to sin. "It is distracting to him to see a woman who has anything bare other than her face," she said.

She added that she had met with her client a dozen times and always dressed respectfully. "He is that conservative," she said.

James Connell, civilian attorney for Ammar al Baluchi, also known as Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, noted that the five defendants coordinated a silent protest at the arraignment, refusing to answer the judge's questions. Except for one short outburst, their behavior was sharply different from their last public hearing four years ago, when they shouted that they hoped their executions would win them martyrdom.

"The accused participated in peaceful resistance to an unjust system," Connell said of their silent, defiant behavior Saturday. "These men have endured years of inhumane treatment and torture. This treatment has had serious long-term effects and will ultimately infect every aspect of this military commission tribunal."

He said issues of torture and cruel treatment should be litigated before the case went forward. "These proceedings may turn out to be the only public examination of the torture years," he said.

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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