Ethiopian terror suspect proclaims innocence

 

crosenberg@miamiherald.com

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- An Ethiopian terrorist suspect at Guantánamo who claims the U.S. outsourced his interrogation to torture in Morocco made a dramatic debut at his war-crimes trial today -- wearing a traditional Muslim tunic dyed to match this offshore interrogation center's trademark florescent orange jumpsuit.

''I'm innocent and I'm not supposed to be here,'' said 27-year-old Binyam Ahmed Muhammad, who challenged virtually every portion of the Military Commissions proceedings.

He is accused of conspiracy as a member of al Qaeda who allegedly got explosives training and discussed dirty bombs with José Padilla in Pakistan. The Bush administration has ruled against charging Padilla, a onetime Broward County resident now in federal custody in South Florida, with similar charges.

In a grisly U.S. Supreme Court brief, his civilian defense attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, claimed that Muhammad confessed to anything he thought his captors wanted to hear -- after the United States handed him off for questioning to Morocco, where interrogators sliced his genitals with a scalpel.

Muhammad, who lived in London for seven years after fleeing his country, says he never joined al Qaeda, and was in Pakistan on a religious journey to shake a drug habit before he was outsourced for interrogation under a CIA policy called ``rendition.''

During the proceedings, the man who claims he has been stripped of basic human rights for four years insisted that in any court but a post-9/11 U.S. Military Commission he would have the right to serve as his own attorney.

He also accused Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann of perpetrating an American legal justice fraud on the world.

He called it ''a con'' at one point -- and waved a handwritten sign declaring: ``Conn Mission.''

Kohlmann displayed a remarkable patience during the first two hours of the hearings, as the presiding officer who volunteered for the war-crimes court tried to sort out whether Air Force Maj. Yvonne Bradley would defend Muhammad. Bradley was mobilized from a private defense practice in Philadelphia to take case.

She declared she had an ethical issue and a conflict of interest, and mostly left the talking to the soft-spoken, slim Ethiopian whose British attorney says he was exiled from his homeland at a young age and lived in Britain for a time.

Muhammad referred several times to torture and rejected rules that require him to have a U.S. military defense attorney at the first U.S. war-crimes tribunal since World War II.

''I'm not here to argue with you whether I'm a terrorist or not. You are here to save lives and I think you should have the right person in court. After four years of torture, that's not saving lives, that's wasting money,'' he said. ``That's not intelligence, that's propaganda.''

Stafford Smith, who is suing for Muhammad's release in civilian court, said Muhammad's outfit was purchased on a street corner in London and dyed to match the color of high-risk captives' jumpsuits here -- at his client's specific request.

Muhammad -- a trim black man with shaved head covered by a skullcap and sporting a Muslim-style beard and mustache -- had also asked to be brought into court in shackles, Smith said. The request was denied.

The session broke for an early lunch, and was slated to resume in the early afternoon -- a time Muhammad quietly pointed out to the judge was meant for Muslim prayer.

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