Five Guantanamo prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 attacks refused to answer a U.S. military judge’s questions on Saturday in a chaotic court hearing in which defense lawyers sought to cast the war crimes tribunal as unfair.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed architect of the hijacked plane attacks in 2001, and his four co-defendants exercised their right to indefinitely delay entering a plea to murder and terrorism charges that carry the death penalty.
The disorderly 13-hour arraignment hearing in a top-security courtroom at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba was marked by the defiance and outbursts of the defendants. The military tribunal was adjourned until June 12.
The judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, said it would be at least a year before the trial started.
The Islamist militants are accused of conspiring with Osama bin Laden, murder in violation of the laws of war, hijacking, terrorism and other charges stemming from the 2001 attacks that propelled the United States into a deadly, costly and ongoing global war against al Qaeda and its supporters.
Two defendants insisted that the charge sheet be read out and it took prosecutors two-and-a-half hours to read the portion describing the hijackings. But they did not read the appendix listing the names of all 2,976 people killed when the seized jetliners slammed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
A previous attempt to prosecute the four men in Guantanamo was halted when the Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to move the case into a New York federal court.
Saturday’s hearing was the first time the detainees had been seen in public in about three years. Mohammed, a 47-year-old Pakistani, looked haggard and his full, scraggly beard was tinted red with henna. He wore a white turban and white tunic.
As he and his co-defendants refused to answer Pohl’s questions, the exasperated judge struggled to keep the hearing on track. “”Why is this so hard?” he asked at one point.
Defense attorney David Nevin said Mohammed refused to respond to the judge’s questions because “”he is deeply concerned about the fairness of the proceeding” and had been tortured.
Yemeni defendant Ramzi Binalshibh knelt on the courtroom floor and prayed as a row of burly guards kept a close watch.
Later he stood up shouting and seemed to be saying that the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was being held at Guantanamo. He said tricks were being played on the defendants inside the prison camp and “maybe they are going to kill us at the camp … and say that we are committing suicide.”
When Yemeni defendant Walid bin Attash refused to enter the courtroom, guards strapped him into a restraining chair and wheeled him in. They later brought him the prosthetic leg that replaced one he lost during a 1997 battle in Afghanistan.
Bin Attash was freed him from the restraints after promising to behave but stripped off his shirt and undershirt when his attorney said he had been scarred by abuse in custody.
The defendants refused to listen through earphones to Arabic translations of the judge’s questions, so the judge ordered the translation broadcast over a loudspeaker, which sometimes drowned out the conversation between the lawyers and the judge.
An attorney for bin Attash, Cheryl Borman, who wore a black hijab and long black robe, told the court that mistreatment of her client at Guantanamo had interfered with his ability to take part in the proceedings. She asked that female paralegals and FBI agents sitting with the prosecution team dress with cultural sensitivity so that the defendants would not be forced to look away as their religion requires. The women in question were wearing pantsuits and knee-length skirts and blazers.
The defendants prayed and chatted among themselves during recesses, and passed around a copy of The Economist magazine.
When they refused to answer his questions, the judge ruled that they would be represented by the lawyers assigned to them. In addition to their military lawyers, each has a civilian attorney with experience in death penalty cases.
The defendants were all held for more than three years in secret CIA prisons before being sent to Guantanamo in 2006, and all have said they were tortured there. The CIA said Mohammed alone was subjected 183 times to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.
But when the defense attorneys tried to discuss the way the defendants had been treated and used the word “”torture” a closed-circuit TV feed of the hearings for journalists and family members of victims was interrupted.
The judge grew testy when the defense lawyers repeatedly tried to raise the torture issue. “”We’ll get to it when I said we’ll get to it,” Pohl snapped at one of the lawyers.
A small group of people whose relatives died in the attacks were chosen by lottery to travel to the Caribbean base to watch the hearing from behind a glass wall in the spectators’ gallery.
Cliff Russell, whose firefighter brother Stephen Russell, 40, was killed at the World Trade Center, said he was comfortable with the death penalty for the defendants and wished them “the worst death possible.”
“I think I have all the evidence I need,” said Russell, who helped recover the remains of 23 people from the ashes and rubble of the Trade Center. “I tasted death, literally.”
He said the taste lingered in his throat and he hoped that the trial “would be the process that gets rid of that for me.”