It is called the reading of the charges.
That’s the point during an arraignment when the judge routinely announces that the defendant has a right to have the charges he or she is facing read out loud in open court.
It is also the point when the defendant’s attorney routinely responds that the defense will waive the reading of the charges.
The process takes about 15 seconds, 20 max.
On Saturday, at one of the most important arraignments in recent American history, that simple routine evaporated when lawyers for two of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s co-defendants in the 9/11 military commission case announced that their clients wished to actually hear the charges read in open court.
This announcement came after a long day of posturing and arguments, mostly by defense lawyers. The judge in the case, US Army Col. James Pohl, appeared completely uninterested in adding several more hours to a difficult day.
“Given the hour, I will defer reading of the charges,” Judge Pohl said. “If the defense objects, the objection is overruled.”
The judge noted that the charge sheet was 87 pages long “and I fail to see how the accused suffers any prejudice by delaying this to the next meeting.” He said he would hear pretrial motions the week of June 12 and that the charges would be read then.
Judge Pohl was not pleased. Nonetheless, he reversed his earlier ruling and announced that the charges would be read Saturday night.
The effort was delayed by a Muslim prayer time. Mr. Mohammed and the four co-defendants – Mr. Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Mustafa Hawsawi – spread prayer rugs over the industrial gray carpet in the courtroom. They followed Mohammed’s lead through the stages of the prayer.
At 7:55 p.m., with prayers offered, Chief Prosecutor Brig. Gen. Mark Martins began reading: “Charge I: Violation of 10 U.S.C. 950t (29), Conspiracy…”
When he finished reading a nearly page-long paragraph, the same section was read again for the benefit of the defendants – in Arabic.
The high-security courtroom at Guantánamo is organized with six defense tables on the left side (facing the judge) and prosecution tables on the right. Each defendant sits on the far left side of his own table. They are seated in the same order their names appear on the charges. Mohammed is in the first row and Hawsawi in the last.
Security is visible and potentially overwhelming in the courtroom. Twenty soldiers line the wall adjacent to the defendants.
As the prosecutors continued to read the charges, Mohammed, Attash, and Binalshibh occasionally exchanged comments. In contrast, Hawsawi appeared to be reciting passages from the Holy Quran and Ali spent most of the time writing.
About an hour into the reading, Judge Pohl stopped the prosecutor. He addressed Defense Attorney Schwartz, who at that moment was talking to his client at the defense table. The judge wanted to know why Schwartz wasn’t listening intently to the reading of the charges.
“You are the one who wanted it to be read,” Pohl said.
“Your honor, it’s not my right. It is my client’s right,” the lawyer replied.
The judge was trying to disguise his displeasure over the entire exercise. The effort failed.
“In 12 years as a judge, this is the first time I have heard them read,” Pohl said. He added that he wanted the parties who asked for the charges to be read to listen and pay attention to the reading.
Roughly two hours into the reading, the prosecutor began to reach the portion of the charges directly related to the hijacked aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center. A group of relatives of those killed in the World Trade Center were present in the public viewing area attached to the courtroom. Several began to weep.
Twenty feet away in the courtroom, Binalshibh yawned. Mohammed and Attash appeared attentive, but showed no particular emotion as the events of Sept.11, 2001, were recounted.
Later, prosecutor Martins commented that the reading of the charges “provided a stirring reminder of the importance of this case.”
There are eight charges in all: conspiracy, intentionally attacking civilians, intentionally attacking civilian objects, murder in violation of the law of war, destruction of property, hijacking, terrorism, and intentionally causing serious bodily harm.
After 2 hours and 10 minutes, at 10:25 p.m., a short statement was issued. “This concludes the reading of the charges.”
Earlier on Saturday, all five defendants were asked if they wished to enter a plea. All five said they would defer entering a plea, which means the case now begins to move forward with lawyers filing pretrial motions.
Judge Pohl set the week of June 12 for the next court session in the case.