Monday, May 7, 2012

9/11 Attack Planners Show Defiance During Court Hearing

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — Khalid Shaikh Mohammed fingered his long, henna-dyed beard and stared down in silence on Saturday, pointedly ignoring a military commissions judge asking in vain whether the self-described architect of the Sept. 11 attacks understood what was being said and whether he was willing to be represented by his defense lawyers.

Minutes later, Ramzi bin al Shibh, another of the five detainees arraigned on Saturday as accused conspirators in the attacks, stood, knelt and started praying. Later, he shouted at the judge that he should address their complaints about prison conditions because “maybe you are not going to see me again.”

“Maybe they are going to kill us and say that we have committed suicide,” he added.
One defendant, Walid bin Attash, was wheeled into the courtroom in a restraint chair for reasons that were not disclosed.

Amid disruptions both passive and aggressive, the government’s attempt to restart its efforts to prosecute the five defendants in the long-delayed Sept. 11 case got off to a slow and rocky start in a trial that could ultimately result in their execution.

After hours of jostling over procedural issues, all five defendants deferred entering a plea. The judge set a hearing date for motions in mid-June; the trial is not likely to start for at least a year.

The Bush administration had started to prosecute the men in the military commissions system in 2008.

The Obama administration tried to transfer the case to a federal court in Lower Manhattan, a short distance from the World Trade Center site, but the plan collapsed amid security fears and a backlash in Congress.

As defense lawyers repeatedly tried to change the subject to security restrictions that they say have hampered their ability to do their jobs, the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, struggled to stick to a military commissions script that had been rewritten the day before — and so was not yet translated into Arabic.

The judge, however, was determined to keep the case on track. When a lawyer for Mr. Mohammed, David Nevin, explained that his client had decided not to respond to the judge’s questions about his assigned defense lawyers in order to protest what he saw as an unfair process, Colonel Pohl replied that he would assume that he had no objections to being represented by them.

“He has that choice,” Colonel Pohl said of Mr. Mohammed’s silence. “But he does not have a choice that would frustrate this commission going forward.”

The arraignment was the first time since 2008 that the five high-profile Qaeda detainees had been seen in public. They wore loose, light-colored garb; their lawyers complained that they had brought other clothes to wear, but that prison officials refused to let them wear it.

Four walked into the courtroom without shackles but surrounded by three large guards who stood between them when the court was not in session. With Mr. bin Attash initially restrained, guards put glasses on his face and attached his prosthetic leg.

Colonel Pohl said he would have the restraints taken off if Mr. bin Attash would pledge not to disrupt the court, but Mr. bin Attash refused to answer him. Eventually, the restraints were removed after the judge accepted a promise relayed through Mr. bin Attash’s lawyer.

While passive when the judge tried to talk to them, the detainees occasionally whispered to one another. 

During brief recesses, they talked freely to their defense lawyers, and while guards came and stood between them, they craned their necks and talked to each other as well, appearing relaxed.

Each detainee also had a bin containing items like legal papers, Korans, prayer rugs and other materials. 

Mr. Mohammed, wearing a black skullcap, took a white cloth from his bin and fashioned it into a sort of turban. One detainee, Ali Abd al Aziz Ali, had a copy of the Economist magazine, which he appeared to be reading and later handed to a detainee sitting behind him, Mustafa al Hawsawi, who leafed through it.

The detainees refused, however, to wear headphones so they could hear a simultaneous Arabic translation. 

To make sure they knew what was being asked, the judge directed translators to repeat in Arabic over a loudspeaker each phrase that was uttered in the courtroom, sometimes causing a confusing jumble and significantly slowing the process — especially after Mr. bin Attash insisted that prosecutors read the full charges, which consumed more than two hours. 

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