Protesting 9/11 defendants, sick defense attorney shut down Guantánamo hearing

A helicopter flies over the Pentagon in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 as smoke billows over the building.
A helicopter flies over the Pentagon in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 as smoke billows over the building. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The judge in the Sept. 11 case shouted down two alleged conspirators protesting their lack of rights, ejected one from the war court and then hastily recessed Monday morning to get a sick defense lawyer to the Navy base hospital.

“I have a right to talk,” Yemeni defendant Ramzi bin al Shibh shouted at the judge, Army Col. James Pohl.

“No you don’t,” the judge shouted back, trying to silence him before ordering U.S. Army guards to remove him from the Top Secret court.

Bin al Shibh, 41, was on his feet, unshackled, shouting at the judge and attired in a desert camouflage jacket atop a traditional white robe when two soldiers pinned his arms behind his back and hustled him out of court

Moments before, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 48, appeared to be reading an Arabic-language protest of military obstacles to meeting with his lawyers. The judge shut him down with a ruling that Mohammed lost the right to voluntarily absent himself from this week’s pretrial hearing by not answering his questions.

“Mr. Mohammed, I am not here to discuss a legal issue,” Pohl said. “I’m simply giving you your rights to be absent.”

The drama came at the start of what was intended to be a dry week-long hearing on technical, computer problems that have bedeviled both this remote court compound and the Pentagon offices of defense attorneys in this death-penalty case.

As the last session was ending Aug. 23, defense lawyers made a presentation to the judge about vanishing work files and emails that, they said, compromised the attorney-client privilege in preparing for the conspiracy trial.

Pohl said this week he’d hear evidence on whether to suspend pretrial preparation, probably until next year, while the Pentagon fixes the defense computer system.

But one of those lawyers, Cheryl Bormann of Chicago, came to court ill.

After Pohl advised the five defendants of their rights to waive attendance, Bormann went to the base hospital where a co-counsel, Air Force Capt. Michael Schwartz, said she was suffering from an upper respiratory infection and ordered to rest in bed until Tuesday night.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you sound horrible,” the judge said to Bormann in court, then hours later issued an order freezing this week’s hearing until Wednesday morning.

Bormann is the civilian death-penalty defense specialist for Walid bin Attash, 35, who like Bin al Shibh is alleged to have been Mohammed’s deputy in the plot that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001.

Because the Pentagon is prosecuting the five men in a joint conspiracy case, Bormann’s illness brought the proceedings to a halt.

On Sunday, the chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, told reporters he understood frustration at the slow pace of the proceedings.

“I want this thing to move,” he told four reporters who arrived at the base over the weekend to report on the proceedings. But, “We don’t want to rush to failure and we want to do justice, not set some sort of standard that’s based purely on speed.”

The other two defendants at court Monday were Ammar al Baluchi, 36, Mohammed’s Pakistani nephew, and Mustafa al Hawsawi, 45, a Saudi man. Both are accused of helping some of the Sept. 11 hijackers with travel arrangements and money transfers.

Hawsawi said he understood his right to miss this week’s hearings and asked to be returned to his prison cell. Baluchi asked to stay inside the court throughout the morning and work with his defense attorneys.

The judge granted both requests.

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