Mohammed Appears in Courtroom With Security, Not Grandeur

Mohammed Appears in Courtroom Built for Security Over Grandeur
Members of the media walk to courtroom 2 on the U.S. Navy base on May 5, 2012 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photograph: Walter Michot-Pool/The Miami Herald via Getty Images

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed sported a long beard in a reddish hue that appeared to be dyed and a white tunic when he entered a courtroom yesterday at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks bore little resemblance to the disheveled figure in stubble and a black mustache in the famous photo released after his capture in Pakistan nine years ago.

The close-up look at Mohammed, who last appeared in court in 2008, was afforded to a few dozen journalists and other guests. They were permitted to witness the arraignment of Mohammed and his codefendants from a small room separated from the courtroom by a glass wall. Family members of victims of the attacks also sat in the viewing room, their privacy protected from other guests by a blue curtain.

Mohammed was the last of the five accused terrorists to be brought into the courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, ushered to his seat by three guards. Minutes later, he wrapped a white cloth around his black skullcap to form a turban. He looked thinner than his capture photo and was now wearing glasses. A large callus showed at the center of his forehead, a mark that sometimes results from hitting the face against the floor during fervent Muslim prayer.

The defendants yesterday deferred entering pleas, and the military judge, U.S. Army Colonel James Pohl, said he is planning to hold the next court sessions June 12 to June 15.

Metal Shed

The setting for the arraignment offered little hint of the importance of a case involving attacks that killed almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon outside Washington and in a plane that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The proceedings promise to test both the government’s ability to prosecute alleged terrorists and the fairness of military tribunals.

Courtroom II of the Office of Military Commissions on the island of Cuba looks more like a metal shed from the outside than it does a columned courthouse.

Inside, the courtroom has gray carpet, plain white walls, and fluorescent lighting in a white ceiling.

While all five men declined to answer questions from the judge, their lawyers spent hours challenging Pohl and questioning his qualifications. The defendants used their joint public appearance to confer privately with one another.

During a break, several of them passed around a copy of the Economist magazine, which they leafed through briefly.

Prosthetic Leg

Ramzi bin al Shibh, one of the accused, had a prayer rug and what appeared to be a copy of the Koran. The proceedings paused when al Shibh stood to pray and then knelt on the floor. Mohammed prayed during a recess.

One of the accused, Walid Bin Attash, was wheeled into the courtroom in a chair with restraints. Pohl said he assumed the restraints were needed because bin Attash had refused to come to court voluntarily.

Guards brought bin Attash’s prosthetic leg into the courtroom and attached it. The judge later approved removing the restraints.

Rows of long tables in the center of the room were reserved for the defendants, their attorneys and prosecutors. An empty jury box filled one side of the courtroom, and folding chairs were aligned along the opposite wall.

“Austere locations are nothing new to justice, and particularly to military courts, and I am confident that this one will achieve fairness and justice despite the modest setting,” Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor, said at a press conference May 4.

Security Checks

There was nothing modest about the security system surrounding the courtroom.

Approved visitors had to pass a series of checks. They first filed through a tent, where they went through a metal detector and had their passports examined.

They then walked down a concrete sidewalk lined on either side with chain-link fencing and barbed wire before arriving at a second screening station.

After another identification check and metal detector, visitors were led onto the outdoor grounds of the court building. A third identification check was conducted in the entrance to the building before visitors were assigned seats in the viewing gallery.

Reporters let into the viewing room weren’t allowed to bring their own pens. Approved pens were provided by the staff inside.

While the visitors could watch the proceedings live, the audio was piped in on a 40-second delay to ensure that any mention of classified information wasn’t made public. The delay had the effect of watching a badly dubbed movie, where the audio is out of sync with the pictures.

Sound Turned Off

At one point, sound in the courtroom was turned off for about a minute, blocking outsiders from hearing an exchange involving one defendant.

As many as 20 guards lined a wall inside the courtroom at times. The defendants were brought into the room one at a time, each accompanied by three guards, with a few wearing plastic shields over their faces.

The first defendant to arrive was bin al Shibh, in a white skull cap, a thick black beard, and a long beige tunic. He sat stroking his beard as he thumbed through an Arabic book that appeared to be a Koran, and began to pray.

Next came Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, also known as Ammar al Baluchi, wearing a black beard and sunglasses. Then came bin Attash, strapped into a chair and wheeled to his spot.

He was followed by Mustafa al Hawsawi, who looked strikingly thin in his white tunic and large glasses. He sported white socks and blue slip-on shoes resembling sneakers.

Finally came Mohammed, about four minutes before the judge arrived. The man who once bragged he was “responsible for the 9/11 operations from A to Z” said nothing yesterday.

“I believe Mr. Mohammed will decline to address the court,” said his civilian lawyer, David Nevin. “He’s deeply concerned about the fairness of the court.”

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