9/11 competency hearing puts focus on Guantánamo’s secret prison

Ramzi bin al Shibh in this International Committee of the Red Cross photo taken at the Guantanamo Bay prison camps, whose link appeared on an al Qaeda website Aug. 16, 2010.
Ramzi bin al Shibh in this International Committee of the Red Cross photo taken at the Guantanamo Bay prison camps, whose link appeared on an al Qaeda website Aug. 16, 2010.

Lawyers and the alleged Sept. 11 conspirators return to the war court Monday for first-ever testimony about life inside Guantánamo’s most secretive lockup, in a U.S. government bid to establish that one accused plotter is fit for trial.

At the last hearings, in December, the Army judge ejected alleged 9/11 deputy Ramzi bin al Shibh four times for shouting that guards were keeping him awake at night in his cell through noises and vibration. Prosecutors now argue he is delusional but mentally competent for trial and want the judge to rule him fit without benefit of a mental-health exam.

To bolster their argument, defense attorneys said Sunday night, the prosecution will take testimony from three military psychiatrists who treated bin al Shibh since 2006 as well as the commander of the clandestine lockup called Camp 7.

The conditions of confinement question is the latest to bedevil the proposed death-penalty trial of bin al Shibh and four other men accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.

It’s unclear how much information will be made public. Defense lawyers for some of the other four men said Sunday night they may not be allowed to question the commander or psychiatrists about what defense attorney Jay Connell described as “a place that imposes extreme isolation in the people who are held there.”

And all four are expected to testify anonymously or with fake names.

Moreover, bin al Shibh has refused to participate in a court-ordered mental-health exam. His civilian lawyer, Jim Harrington, says the 41-year-old Yemeni was tortured during four years in the CIA’s secret prison network but agrees he’s mentally competent for trial.

The main issue in court Monday will be whether bin al Shibh has imagined or truly experienced noises and vibrations that disrupt his sleep at the prison. Harrington said Sunday night his client is particularly sensitive as a result of an injury he suffered after his capture in Pakistan on Sept. 11, 2002, and before the CIA turned him over to the U.S. military in 2006.

Harrington would not elaborate, saying the injuries are “reportedly classified.” He also said that the noises “have been minimized considerably” since the judge agreed in December to subject bin al Shibh to a mental-health exam.

Bin al Shibh allegedly aspired to become one of the 9/11 suicide hijackers. But he couldn’t obtain a U.S. visa so instead is accused of helping Khalid Sheik Mohammed organize the attacks from Hamburg, Germany.

The prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, proposes to execute the men if convicted. He wants to start choosing a military jury in January.

“The government will not be presenting any witnesses who will opine on whether Mr. bin al Shibh is presently competent to stand trial as no one has had a recent face-to-face forensic interview to make such a determination,” prosecutors wrote the judge March 27, according to a recipient of the memo.

So instead, the goal of this week’s hearing is to “establish a record that JTF-GTMO [the prison bureaucracy] is not intentionally producing noises, odors or vibrations to intentionally interfere with Mr. bin al Shibh’s confinement.”

Camp 7, by far one of Guantánamo’s most guarded secrets, is where the military segregates captives who were subjected to the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program of waterboarding for some and sleep deprivation for many from the rest of the detention center’s 154 prisoners.

Members of Congress have been allowed to inspect it but journalists brought on regular prison tours that boast “safe, humane, legal, transparent” detention have never been allowed inside it. The Pentagon won’t say who built it, when or for how much.

The admiral in charge of the prison camps said in an interview last month that Camp 7 suffers structural problems — cracking floors and walls, doors that don’t open and close properly. No problems, according to Rear Adm. Richard Butler, are serious enough in his opinion to jeopardize a 2009 Pentagon finding of compliance with the Geneva Conventions that govern how nations treat war prisoners.

Lawyers for three ex-CIA prisoners said at a briefing for reporters Sunday that they consider Camp 7’s conditions to be “cruel and unusual” because captives there are mostly isolated, cut off from others and contact with the outside world.

It was unclear what other business might get done in the four-day session to set the stage for the trial by military commission. The judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, agreed to recess until June on Thursday after attorneys sought time to leave the base and celebrate the Easter holiday.

This week’s session coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover and also, based on leaked secret U.S. documents, the 49th birthday of Mohammed, the alleged architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.

His attorneys declined to say how he would be celebrating but one noted that pious Muslims see birthdays as a reason for thoughtful reflection rather than a party.

Mohammed, who’s spent a fifth of his life in CIA or U.S. military custody, will likely be on the sidelines of this week’s hearings. The judge ruled in December that he would not hear other legal arguments until the competency issue is resolved.

Author Terry McDermott, who co-wrote a book about Mohammed, The Hunt for KSM, said the birthday does mark a milestone of sorts.

It illustrates “how huge a percentage of his adult life he devoted to terrorism or the consequences of same,” he said, dating the accused mastermind’s devotion to the cause to 1989 as the Afghan jihad was ending and his brother got killed.

“That’s my best guess as to when he first began, anyhow,” McDermott said. “So that’s coming up on 25 years now.”

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