World watches as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others go on trial

The military trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other 9/11 defendants could become the most important US war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg. But at their arraignment Saturday, the five men staged a protest.

Janet Hamlin/AP
In this courtroom sketch reviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reads a document during his military hearing at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Saturday, May 5, 2012.

The alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was brought before a military judge on Saturday and not only refused to answer routine questions in open court, but also refused to listen to a simultaneous Arabic translation of the proceeding.

Instead, Mr. Mohammed and his co-defendants, accused of plotting the most lethal terrorist attack in US history, sought to use the proceeding to stage a protest.

Like Mohammed, several of the defendants took their earphones off as the arraignment was getting under way.

IN PICTURES: Guantanamo Bay ten years and counting

On full display before a packed courtroom on the US Navy base here, Mohammed seemed almost disinterested as he was confronted with charges that he conceived, planned, and directed a 19-man suicide mission that left nearly 3,000 dead on Sept. 11, 2001.

Mohammed appeared in a white robe with a long and bushy red henna-stained beard. On his head, he wore the white turban of a mullah, and his forehead showed a prayer bruise common among devout Muslims. It was the first time in three years he’d been seen in public.

The appearance came amid security so tight that reporters were not permitted to bring their own pens into a press viewing area separated from the courtroom by thick glass.

Mohammed’s four co-defendants adopted the same posture of passive defiance, repeatedly refusing to acknowledge the presence of the military judge or the gravity of the capital charges filed against them.

“I believe Mr. Mohammed will decline to address the court. I believe he is deeply concerned about the fairness of the proceeding,” Defense Attorney David Nevin told the judge.

He added: “The world is watching.”

The occasion was meant to be an arraignment, a routine opportunity for the defendants to be apprised of the charges filed against them and to set the stage for an eventual trial.

But nothing in the case of United States v. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has been routine.

If it proceeds to trial, the Mohammed case could become the most important US war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg. But unlike the adjudication of alleged Nazi war criminals after World War II, the Mohammed trial is tainted by the CIA’s use of extremely harsh interrogation tactics in the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.

That history complicates any effort to bring Mohammed and his alleged coconspirators to justice. Critics of the military commission process say it is a rigged system designed to allow the introduction of coerced evidence and hearsay that would be excluded from a trial in federal court.

Military prosecutors insist they can make their case without relying on evidence gathered through excessively coercive interrogations and torture.

Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators are facing eight charges, including conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, murder, hijacking, as well as intentional attacks on civilians and civilian property.

If convicted, all five face a death sentence.

Mohammed’s appearance at Guantánamo on Saturday marks yet another reversal in the on-again, off-again military commission process.

He and the four others were arraigned by a different military judge in June 2008. Mohammed used that occasion to accuse the US government of torturing him. He also rejected his court-appointed lawyer.

This time he remained silent, allowing his lawyer to do the talking.

Like the defendants, defense counsel seemed to be acting in coordination, as if they might be auditioning for their militant clients. Defense counsel repeatedly interrupted the judge, US Army Col. James Pohl, while trying to argue pretrial motions seeking to have the charges thrown out.

At one point, reporters viewing the courtroom saw Mohammed smile slightly as a lawyer expressed concern about taking an oath to serve a military commission process that the lawyer said he viewed as unfair.

Defense lawyers said their clients were upset about their treatment in a maximum security section of the terrorism prison camp during the past 18 months. One of the defendants, Walid Bin Attash of Yemen, was wheeled into the courtroom strapped to a restraining chair after he refused to attend the session.

At one point, defendant Ramzi Binalshibh of Yemen broke the sustained silence among his co-defendants and began to shout.

The judge advised him that such interjections were not appropriate.

“Maybe you are not going to see me anymore,” Mr. Binalshibh replied. “It is about the treatment at the camp. Maybe they are going to kill us and say it was suicide.”

Earlier in the hearing, Binalshibh rose from his seat at the defense table and began performing the rituals of Muslim prayer. Fifteen minutes later, co-defendant Ali Abdul Aziz Ali of Pakistan rose from his seat and conducted a similar prayer as the courtroom proceedings continued around him.

The apparent acts of defiance appeared to be coordinated, although it is unclear to what extent the five men have an opportunity to interact. They are believed to be held in solitary confinement in a particularly isolated section of the detention camp.

Judge Pohl appeared to be taken aback by the silent protest and the refusal to use earphones to listen to a simultaneous Arabic translation. He addressed that issue by arranging for simultaneous Arabic translation to be broadcast throughout the courtroom, making it irrelevant whether defendants used earphones or not.

The defendants also refused – repeatedly – to answer the judge’s questions about whether they wanted to retain their existing defense counsel.

“One cannot choose to not participate and frustrate the conduct of [the commission],” Judge Pohl said at one point. He suggested that Mohammed and the others might face negative consequences for refusing to answer the judge’s questions.

“If he refuses to listen to the earphones, and if he refuses to answer me, I will assume he is making a choice,” the judge told Mohammed’s lawyer.

Pohl said he would not allow the defendants’ silence to “frustrate the commission going forward.” The judge then asked whether Mohammed had an intention to boycott the commission process.

“Mr. Mohammed may or may not have an intention,” Mr. Nevin said. “I don’t know that that is his intention.”

“He has a choice. He can participate and make his elections or he can choose not to participate and an election will be made for him,” the judge said.

The judge asked: “Does he want to put the earphones back on?”

Nevin: “I doubt it.”

Judge Pohl: “Did you ask him?”

Nevin: “Yes.”

In addition to Bin Attash, Binalshibh, and Ali, the fourth co-defendant is Mustafa al-Hawsawi of Saudi Arabia.

Military commission charges against Mohammed and the others were dismissed in 2009, after President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder decided the five men should be tried in a civilian federal court in New York City.

Congress pushed back. Lawmakers passed a measure blocking any transfer of a Guantánamo detainee to the US for any reason, including to stand trial.

A 10-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury in New York was dismissed, and Mr. Holder announced that Mohammed and his codefendants would, once again, face trial before a military commission at Guantánamo.

IN PICTURES: Guantanamo Bay ten years and counting

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