In a strange twist in an increasingly unusual case, a defendant in the 9/11 military commission trial at Guantánamo suddenly asked midway through a pre-trial hearing on Tuesday to be taken back to his cell after complaining of being subjected to “psychological torture” by military guards.
Ramzi Bin al-Shibh asked the judge to be returned to the terror detention camp rather than remain in the courtroom for the rest of the day’s proceeding.
The judge, US Army Col. James Pohl, asked the defendant whether he was voluntarily waiving his right to be present during the hearing.
“I cannot remain here,” Mr. Bin al-Shibh told the judge in open court. “There are problems with the food that was provided.”
He said he was experiencing a “daily problem” with food and that when he had meetings with his lawyers during the lunch hour sometimes he was not provided any lunch at all.
“This is one sort of psychological torture,” he said. “They cause problems (between) me and the guards on a daily basis,” he said through an Arabic translator. He added that it was not just a problem for him but for “the brothers as well,” referring to his co-defendants in the case.
The strange action came on the second day of a weeklong series of hearings addressing a range of pre-trial legal issues in the military commission trial of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Mr. Bin Al-Shibh, and three others at the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The hearings are being monitored by news reporters at Guantánamo and via a live video feed at Fort Meade, Md.
Bin al-Shibh was the only defendant of the five who chose to attend Tuesday’s hearing. The four other co-defendants waived their right to be present at the hearing and opted instead to remain in their cells at the terror detention camp.
Bin al-Shibh did not describe his “problem” in detail, but whatever happened in the holding cell during the lunch break was enough to convince him to ask to return to his cell.
After consulting with his client, defense lawyer James Harrington said there were underlying problems with detention camp guards that Mr. Harrington said he would seek to resolve with camp officials.
“Sometimes things build up and build up and build up, and that is what happened in this case,” he told the judge.
Another of Bin al-Shibh’s lawyers, US Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Bogucki, noted that the judge had earlier issued an order to the guard force at the detention camp in response to complaints from Bin al-Shibh about noises and vibrations in his cell.
Government lawyers said at the time that there was no evidence that Bin al-Shibh was being subjected to intentional noises and vibrations. But Judge Pohl nonetheless issued an order asking camp officials to stop doing anything that might be causing such a problem.
Lt. Cmdr. Bogucki said that when Bin al-Shibh tried to cite the judge’s order to military guards after the ruling was issued, he was told they knew nothing of such an order.
When Bogucki confronted camp officials about the matter, he said he was told: “This is not a judge issue, this is our issue,” and “if you don’t like it, file a motion.”
The defense lawyer told the judge that detention camp officials showed a “complete lack of respect for your order.” He said based on reports from his client, the harassing activity was both ongoing and retaliatory.
Judge Pohl said that the first time the complaints of noises and vibrations were brought to his courtroom, government lawyers suggested that perhaps the noises and vibrations existed only in Bin al-Shibh’s mind.
“My client suffers from no such delusional disorder,” Bogucki replied.
Pohl said that the appropriate response would be for defense lawyers to contact the camp commander and raise the issue directly with him.
“The camp commander is part of the problem,” Bogucki said. “The quotes I gave you were from the camp commander.”
The lawyer added: “This is a case unprecedented in American history given the treatment that these men have had, so we do have to proceed in some manner.”
All five of the defendants were held for years in secret custody by the Central Intelligence Agency where they were subjected to prolonged and harsh interrogation techniques. Those techniques included sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation combined with prolonged exposure to loud noises.
A spokesman for the detention camp at Guantánamo denied the existence of any significant problem between Bin al-Shibh and the guards.
“A freshly-prepared standard detainee halal meal was provided to the defendant by the Joint Task Force during the lunch recess. The defendant complained that his lunch did not include condiments such as olives and honey,” US Navy Capt. Robert Durand, Director of Public Affairs, Joint Task Force Guantánamo, said in a statement.
All five defendants are facing a military tribunal on charges that they helped plan and/or help with logistics in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks that left nearly 3,000 dead. If convicted they face the death penalty.
At a hearing on Monday, another defendant, Walid Bin Attash, complained that he was too ill to remain in the courtroom.
His lawyer said he wanted to remain present during the hearing, but that a stomach condition was too painful. The judge called an early recess to the public portion of the hearing.
It was not clear what might happen if Mr. Bin Attash was still feeling sick on Tuesday but did not want to waive his right to be present. That issue did not arise since Bin Attash told a detention camp official early Tuesday that he did not want to attend that day’s court hearing.
The pre-trial hearings are set to continue through Friday.