G uantanamo Bay: The self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept 11 attacks repeatedly declined to answer a judge’s questions, and his co-defendants knelt in prayer in what appeared to be a concerted protest against the military proceedings.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men appeared for the first time Saturday in more than three years for arraignment at a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay. They’re charged with 2,976 counts of murder for the 2001 attacks.
The hearing quickly bogged down before they could be arraigned. Mohammed and his co-defendants took off the earphones that provided Arabic translations and refused to answer any questions from the judge, Army Col James Pohl, dramatically slowing a hearing that is heavy on military legal procedure.
At one point, two of the men got up and prayed alongside their defence tables under the watchful eyes of troops arrayed along the sides of the high-security courtroom on the US base in Cuba.
Prisoner Walid bin Attash was put in a restraint chair for unspecified reasons and then removed from it after he agreed to behave properly; and lawyers for all defendants complained that the prisoners were prevented from wearing the civilian clothes of their choice.
Mohammed wore a white turban in court; his flowing beard, which had appeared to be greying in earlier hearings and photos, was streaked with red henna.
Mohammed’s civilian lawyer, David Nevin, said he believed Mohammed was not responding because he believed the tribunal was unfair.
Jim Harrington, a civilian attorney for Yemeni defendant Ramzi Binalshibh, said his client would not respond to questions “without addressing the issues of confinement”. No further explanation was given.
Pohl warned he would not permit defendants to block the hearing and would continue without his participation.
“One cannot choose not to participate and frustrate the normal course of business,” Pohl said.
He addressed the earpiece issue by bringing the translators into the courtroom to translate out loud and attempted to stick to the standard script for tribunals, asking the defendants if they understood their rights to counsel and would accept the attorneys appointed for them. The men did not respond, not even to acknowledge that they understood the questions.
Through much of the session, the defendants seemed to be trying to give the impression they were in a different world than the rest of the court.
Cheryl Bormann, a civilian attorney for Bin Attash, appeared in a conservative Muslim outfit that left only her face uncovered and she asked the court to order other women present to wear “appropriate” clothing so that defendants do not have to avert their eyes “for fear of committing a sin under their faith”.
And Binalshibh interrupted the session with an outburst from the defence table in a mix of Arabic and broken English, saying, “Maybe they will kill me and say I committed suicide”. In the past, during the failed first effort to prosecute them at the US base in Cuba, Mohammed mocked the tribunal and said he and his co-defendants would plead guilty and welcome execution. But there were signs that at least some of the defence teams were preparing for a lengthy fight, planning challenges of the military tribunals and the secrecy
that shrouded the case.
The arraignment is “only the beginning of a trial that will take years to complete, followed by years of appellate review,” attorney James Connell, who represents defendant Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, told reporters gathered at the base to observe the hearing.
“I can’t imagine any scenario where this thing gets wrapped up in six months,” Connell said.