GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- The five men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks used their weekend war court appearances to stage “peaceful resistance to an unjust system” being used for political reasons, defense lawyers said Sunday — a day after the 9/11accused turned the judge’s plans to hold a simple arraignment into a 13-hour marathon of prayer and protest.
“The system is a rigged game to prevent us from doing our jobs,” argued criminal defense attorney David Nevin, accusing the prison camp commander of making it impossible to learn from alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed how the CIA waterboarded him 183 times and used other since-outlawed techniques to break him.
Mohammed, his nephew and three other men allegedly trained, advised and financed the 19 hijackers who crashed airliners into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, killing 2,976 people. All could get the death penalty, if convicted.
“The government wants to kill Mr. Mohammed,” Nevin said, “to extinguish the last eyewitness to his torture.”
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Nevin other attorneys met with the media Sunday morning to discuss the proceedings that lasted until 10:30 p.m. Saturday. “We’re here for a political reason,” said Nevin, who also referred to Attorney General Eric Holder’s plan to take the case to New York until Congress overruled him.
But the Pentagon’s chief prosecutor predicted no speedy resolution to the trial, due to start a year from now at the soonest. “We’ve got to do this methodically and patiently. It’s going to take time,” said Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, deflecting a reporter’s question on whether the Pentagon was preparing an execution site at this remote outpost in the Caribbean.
The military commissions can cope with “deplorable and disappointing” episodes of torture or cruel treatment, Martins said. But he said he disagreed with critics of the prosecution that “some instance of mistreatment or torture pollutes everything in the case.”
“The remedy is not to dismiss all charges. Everything is polluted and tainted? Everybody goes free? That’s not justice,” he said. “We have to submit that to our courts methodically.”
During Saturday’s hearing, however, both the accused and their attorneys did their best to frustrate the methodology that the judge had scripted.
Each of the accused steadfastly refused to answer basic questions posed to them by Army Col. James L. Pohl, the war court’s chief judge, on whether they accepted their Pentagon-appointed attorneys. Instead, they periodically disrupted the proceedings with demonstrations of Muslim prayer and protests of prison conditions.
Ramzi bin al Shibh, 40, a Yemeni who allegedly organized a cell of 9/11 hijackers in Germany, likened the Guantánamo detention center to that of the brutal regime of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Fellow Yemeni Walid bin Attash, 33, who allegedly trained some hijackers in hand-to-hand combat, took off his shirt to try to display scars his lawyer said resulted from abuse by the guards at Guantánamo. The judge barked at him to put it back on.
“These men have endured years of inhumane treatment and torture” that will “infect every aspect of this military commission tribunal,” attorney James Connell III warned Sunday morning. On Saturday, he said, “The accused participated in peaceful resistance to an unjust system.”
Connell’s client, Pakistani Ammar al Baluchi, affected an air of disinterest, leafing through a magazine. During a recess, he handed it to Saudi co-defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi, 43, who like Baluchi is accused of wiring money to the hijackers.
Criticism didn’t come from only the defense attorneys. Retired Rear Adm. Donald Guter, the Navy’s top lawyer on Sept. 11, 2001, declared Sunday, “I am convinced more than ever that this belongs in federal court.” He came to Guantánamo to watch the proceedings for Human Rights First, as a critic of commissions.
It wasn’t just the 13-hour proceeding that ended with a reading of the charges that discomfited critics but also the tug-of-war over fundamental issues — from prison camp conditions to restrictions on communications between the accused and their defenders. Hawsawi’s attorney, Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz, struggled throughout the arraignment to get the judge to hear arguments on why the defense is hobbled by limited resources, and why the case should be dismissed as improper.
Pohl said he’d address those issues at the next hearing June 12-15. He stuck to a script of approving the legal teams, then taking questions from the defense teams about his background and potential conflicts at trials. The defense lawyers postponed until later whether they would challenge the judge’s ability to preside at the first capital trials of his career.
Pohl sought to waive the reading of the 87-page charge sheet, but Bin Attash asked for them it be read, a single defendant’s prerogative, extending the arraignment into the night.
“The participants were raced up to the coliseum for the pleasure of the masters,” Ruiz told reporters bitterly.