Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused chief plotter of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, scoffed at the military commission that will try his case as a judge granted him and four co-defendants the right to skip hearings the rest of this week.
“I don’t think there’s any justice in this court,” Mohammed, his long beard dyed a reddish hue, said through a translator before a military tribunal yesterday at the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was his first public comment since a hearing in 2008, when he said he wished to be found guilty and martyred.
The remark came on the opening day in a week of preliminary hearings aimed at defining the rules of a trial for Mohammed and the four others accused of plotting the attacks that used hijacked passenger planes to destroy the World Trade Center in Manhattan and damage the Pentagon, killing almost 3,000 people.
Mohammed didn’t comment when he was arraigned on terrorism charges on May 5, and he used a recess to pray. One of his accused co-conspirators disrupted that 13-hour session by standing and praying, while another was wheeled into the courtroom in restraints after the judge said he had refused to attend voluntarily.
Yesterday, all five men appeared attentive and cooperative as their lawyers fought a motion by the prosecution that would have required their attendance at all court proceedings.
The military judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, said he would give the five men an option each day this week as to whether to attend that day’s hearing.
“The accused can, prior to assembly, choose voluntarily not to attend a session” as long as “he understands his right to be present and what his actions may or may not mean,” Pohl said. He stopped short of making the ruling permanent, saying he hadn’t decided whether to revisit the issue in future weeks or months.
Defense lawyers haven’t disclosed whether or how they will challenge the evidence of their clients’ involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. In public to date, much of the defense strategy rests on exposing the interrogation techniques used on the men after they were captured as well as the conditions of their continued detention at the base at Guantanamo Bay.
James Harrington, an attorney for Ramzi bin al Shibh, who is accused of helping finance the hijackers who committed the attacks, referred to his client’s years in captivity as he argued yesterday for the right not to attend hearings.
‘Designed’ to Convict
Harrington said the defendants may believe, “I don’t want anything to do with the court. I don’t recognize the jurisdiction of the court. I don’t want to be subjected to this procedure that transports me here, brings up memories, it brings up emotions of what happened to me.”
Several family members of Sept. 11 victims who attended the hearing could be heard gasping at that statement.
David Nevin, Mohammed’s chief counsel, defended his client’s opposition to the military commission at a news conference after the hearing.
“See whether you can come to the conclusion that he’s wrong,” Nevin told reporters. “It’s a court that’s designed in a way to achieve a conviction.”
Urging that the defendants be compelled to attend all sessions, Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor, said, “Apathy or disdain for the proceedings does not qualify as good cause” for being absent.
Two of the accused spoke in English as they challenged the debate over whether they had to appear in the military courtroom.
When the judge asked Mohammed’s nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, whether he understood the proceedings would continue even if he escaped prison, the defendant said he did and “I’ll be sure to leave some notes.”
Bin al Shibh said he was troubled by a provision requiring him to notify prison guards if he opted to skip a hearing and then changed his mind.
“Some guards, they can make it very hard and difficult for us,” he said.
Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, an attorney defending Mustafa al Hawsawi, who allegedly helped finance the hijackers, said he didn’t expect his client to attend the hearing today.
With a trial before a military judge and jury still a year or more away, lawyers for the five men have filed a barrage of motions seeking to define or expand the legal rights they will be afforded as they attempt to air grievances about their treatment in captivity.
The defendants are charged with conspiring to finance, train and direct the 19 hijackers who seized the planes. The charges include terrorism, hijacking aircraft, conspiracy, murder in violation of the law of war and attacking civilians. The men could face the death penalty if convicted.
Today, the hearing may focus on motions by the defense that would allow the accused “to wear reasonable clothing of their own choice.” They appeared yesterday in Pakistani-style clothing, with turbans and vests over long shirts.
The judge also may tackle several motions dealing with how much information about the men’s interrogation and detention must be kept secret.
Mohammed, who has said he was the mastermind of the attacks, was held by the Central Intelligence Agency until 2006, before being sent to Guantanamo. The CIA has acknowledged he was one of three al-Qaeda operatives who were waterboarded. He underwent the procedure, which simulates drowning, 183 times, according to government documents.
Under President Barack Obama’s administration, the U.S. has since banned the practice, which critics such as Human Rights Watch call a form of torture. Members of former President George W. Bush’s administration, led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, have continued to champion waterboarding as an appropriate technique they say can extract urgent information from terrorists.
The case is U.S. v. Mohammed, Military Commissions Trial Judiciary (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba).
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