Accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators put on a show of defiance during a marathon war court arraignment Saturday, sitting mute rather than answering their U.S. military judge’s questions ahead of their trial on charges of planning the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
At no time did the five men enter pleas — dashing hopes that they’d cut short a trial process potentially lasting years by admitting their guilt or confessing to the crime in a bid to get a fast track to martyrdom.
Instead, the military judge struggled to get through the basics of starting the clock toward the capital murder trial, provisionally scheduled for a year from now, by unilaterally assigning Pentagon-paid defense attorneys to the five men accused of orchestrating the worst terror attack on U.S. soil.
“Why is this so hard?” the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, declared in exasperation.
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The five accused men allegedly trained, advised and financed the 19 hijackers who commandeered airliners and then crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, killing 2,976 people. All could get the death penalty, if convicted.
The day began with guards carrying one accused terrorist, alleged 9/11 trainer Walid bin Attash, into the maximum-security courtroom at about 9 a.m. strapped into a restraint chair. The judge said guards chose to put the captive in restraint because of his behavior outside the court. There was no additional explanation.
The long session concluded more than 12 hours later with the chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, and other prosecutors reciting the 87-page charge sheet in English — and a translator echoing each paragraph in Arabic because the accused refused to don headphones for simultaneous translation. In between the accused slowed the process by not only accepting each of the judge’s offers for three prayer calls that required recesses in the long hearing but by also adding extra prayers in the midst of the proceedings.
At one point, Ramzi bin al Shibh, the alleged organizer of an al Qaida cell in Hamburg, Germany, got up from his defendant’s chair and began to pray. He stood, arms crossed on his chest, then at one point got on his knees. The guards didn’t move and the court watched in silence until he finished.
Saturday’s rare war court session was the first appearance of the five men since Jan. 21, 2009, a day after the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Since then, Obama worked with Congress to provide the men with greater protections. But the Pentagon-paid defense lawyers wouldn’t stick to the script, either, instead peppering the proceedings with a long litany of procedural protests — about a lack of resources, about presumptive classification requirements, and about allegations of abuse of their clients at the hands of the detention center, miles from the war-court compound called Camp Justice.
Mohammed was attired in a turban and what appeared to be a white gown. His massive beard looked reddish, apparently from henna, rather than the speckled gray of a few years ago.
The prison’s command staff “does not provide detainees with hair dye,” said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman, in response to a request for an explanation. He added that the detention center “conducts safe, humane, legal and transparent care and custody of detainees.”
All day long, Mohammed refused to answer the judge’s questions. And, with one exception, his four alleged collaborators fell in right behind him. Some appeared to be reading the Koran rather than responding to the judge’s questions.
The Heritage Foundation’s Cully Stimson, a longtime war-court observer and reserve Navy judge, described it as “coordinated chaos.” Mohammed, he said in an exchange via Twitter, “wants to control the courtroom.”
But Mohammed’s demeanor was in dramatic contrast to his appearance at the previous arraignment, June 5, 2008, in the case that was started under President George W. Bush but was withdrawn by Obama while he reformed the military commissions with Congress.
Four years ago, the self-described architect of the Sept. 11 attacks disrupted the proceedings by reciting Koran verses aloud and declaring that he welcomed the death penalty.
“This is what I wish — to be martyred,” he told the first judge on the earlier case, a Marine colonel.
That occurred less than two years after Mohammed’s arrival at Guantánamo from more than three years of custody in secret CIA prisons, during which he was subjected to 183 rounds of waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques.
In this court appearance, the only verbal outburst came from Bin al Shibh, who blurted at one point that the prison camp leadership was just like Moammar Gadhafi, the slain Libyan dictator.
When the judge tried to hush Bin al Shibh, explaining the accused would be given a chance to speak later, the Yemeni replied: “Maybe they are going to kill us and say that we are committing suicide.”
Defense lawyers said, alternately, that the men were protesting prison camp interference in the attorney-client relationship, something that happened that morning involving Bin Attash’s prosthetic leg during his transfer from his cell to the war court, being strip-searched before arriving at the court complex Saturday and their treatment in years of CIA custody prior to their September 2006 arrival at Guantánamo.
“These men have been mistreated,” declared Pentagon-paid defense counsel Cheryl Bormann, Bin Attash’s attorney, a civilian who specializes in death-penalty cases.
Bormann stunned spectators by turning up at the compound in a black abaya, cloaking her from head to toe — covering her hair, leaving only her face showing.
With the exception of Bin al Shibh’s outburst, the men adopted looks of disinterest throughout the hearing. During recesses, they spoke animatedly between themselves and across the five rows they occupied in the courtroom, at times laughing and smiling.
For a while, Mohammed’s nephew, Ammar al Baluchi, leafed through a copy of The Economist. He handed it back to Mustafa al-Hawsawi, sitting in the defendant’s row behind him during a recess. The nephew, a Pakistani, and Hawsawi, a Saudi, are accused in the charge sheets of wiring money to the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Pohl questioned bin Attash’s military attorney, Air Force Capt. Michael Schwartz, about whether bin Attash would sit peacefully if the restraints were removed. Midway through the morning, the judge instructed him to be released. He sat for the rest of the morning in an ordinary court chair, but didn’t appear to be following the proceedings.
At issue early in the hearing was whether the accused 9/11 conspirators would accept their Pentagon-paid defense counsel, a key preliminary step to holding an arraignment. The defense lawyers sought, first, to argue motions at the court alleging inadequate defense resources, prison camp interference in the attorney-client relationship and restrictive conditions imposed on their legal duties.
Pohl would have none of it. He insisted that the issue of appointment of counsel come first.
Then, one by one, the judge read a script to each of the accused, spelling out each man’s right to a Pentagon-paid legal team. Pohl periodically asked each of the men whether he understood what was being said.
None replied, so he noted over and over again for the record, “accused refuses to answer.”
And, then one by one, the judge unilaterally appointed their Pentagon-paid attorneys to defend them.