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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, accused the U.S. government of killing “millions” of people and using torture “under the name of national security.”
Mohammed, in his most extensive public comments since 2008, urged a military judge at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, yesterday to avoid using an expansive definition of national security that the defendant said would justify torture and killing.
“The president can take someone and throw him into the sea under the name of national security,” Mohammed said through an interpreter, in an apparent reference to the burial at sea of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs last year.
Mohammed took advantage of leeway granted by the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl. After declining to attend the previous day’s hearing, Mohammed appeared yesterday in a camouflage vest that his attorney said resembled what he wore as a member of the Mujahadeen force in Afghanistan when it was under Soviet occupation. Pohl had granted permission for such attire so long as it wasn’t part of any U.S. military uniform.
The extent of Mohammed’s outburst, which lasted about six minutes, may have taken Pohl by surprise. At the end of it, the judge announced he wouldn’t allow extemporaneous speeches by the defendants.
“This is a one-time occurrence,” Pohl told the court.
Tom Acquaviva, who lost his 29-year-old son Paul in the World Trade Center, said he was stunned to hear Mohammed accuse the U.S. of killing millions of people.
“It made me angry, absolutely,” Acquaviva, who sat in the viewing gallery of the courtroom with his wife Josephine while Mohammed spoke, said in an interview. “He was very arrogant, a person with not one iota of remorse.”
In his comments, Mohammed said national security has been used as an excuse “to torture people” and “to detain the children under the name of national security, underage children.”
When the interpreter quoted the defendant as saying the U.S. government has killed “thousands,” Mohammed interjected. “Millions,” he said in English.
“My only advice to you is you do not get affected by crocodile tears,” Mohammed told Pohl. “Your blood is not made out of gold and ours is not out of water. We are all human beings.”
Mohammed and four co-defendants are on trial for plotting the terrorist attacks that used hijacked passenger planes to kill almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the Pentagon near Washington and in a field in Pennsylvania.
In 2008, Mohammed sought to plead guilty before a military tribunal, saying he wanted to be martyred and “I do not trust the Americans.”
Mohammed’s speech came after a day of testimony aimed at resolving a dispute over the rules that for handling classified information, including interrogation techniques used on the defendants at secret CIA prisons.
Mohammed raised his hand seeking permission to speak.
Pohl appeared unsure how to proceed, saying he didn’t know if a special session was needed to determine whether Mohammed’s statements could be aired in open court.
“I don’t know what he’s going to say,” Pohl said, before declaring a recess. After the break, the judge recognized Mohammed.
During the courtroom arguments over how much information must be kept secret in the interest of national security, Hina Shamsi, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the government’s proposed protective order would prevent Mohammed from saying publicly that he was “waterboarded” 183 times, even though that information has already been disclosed. The technique simulates drowning.
“Thoughts, experiences and memories belong to human beings,” Shamsi said in court yesterday. “They do not belong to the government.”
If the protective order is adopted, “it is essentially saying the government can gag them from talking about what the government did to them illegally.”
Joanna Baltes, a prosecuting attorney, said of the protective order, “There is still a compelling government interest in maintaining the integrity of that classified information.”
She said the order wouldn’t impose any sanctions on the defendants if they disclosed information that is classified because it applies to those who hold security clearances, including the defense attorneys, not the defendants.
Mohammed’s chief counsel, David Nevin, rejected that argument.
“The government is sanctioning them for the revelation of classified information,” Nevin said. “They’re not allowed to speak out about what they observe,” he said of the defendants.
With a trial of the Sept. 11 defendants 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 consideration of how to handle sensitive information in the biggest terrorism case in U.S. history coincided with a ruling questioning the credibility of military tribunals.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington this week threw out the 2008 conviction of Osama bin Laden’s former driver after finding he was wrongly tried under a law that didn’t exist at the time of the alleged crime.
Salim Hamdan, who was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 and sent to Guantanamo Bay two months later, was the first terrorism suspect found guilty at a U.S. military war-crimes trial since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The appeals court said the Military Commissions Act of 2006 didn’t cover retroactive prosecution of acts that weren’t prohibited as war crimes.
A lawyer for Mohammed, Captain Jason Wright, said in a statement this week that the appeals court “emphasized that constitutional principles can, and must, reach to Guantanamo Bay.”
To contact the reporter on this story: David Lerman in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com