Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused chief plotter of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, scoffed at the military commission that will try his case before skipping today’s hearing and winning the right to wear a Mujahadeen’s camouflage uniform when he does appear.
“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.
Mohammed and two co-defendants chose to forfeit their right to attend today’s hearing by signing a written waiver under a process approved yesterday by the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl. The two other defendants chose to attend today’s session.
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 long-delayed week of hearings, initially scheduled for June, is 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 kill almost 3,000 people at the the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the Pentagon near Washington and a field in Pennsylvania.
All five men appeared attentive and cooperative yesterday as they answered the judge’s questions, with two of them speaking in English and others relying on an interpreter.
The demeanor marked a change from their arraignment on terrorism charges on May 5, when what was expected to be a simple proceeding turned into a 13-hour session with outbursts from defendants and interruptions as they sought to pray. One defendant was wheeled into the courtroom for the arraignment in May in restraints after the judge said he had refused to attend voluntarily.
Pohl said yesterday 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 when a jury is convened.
The judge today settled a dispute over what the defendants may wear in court. A lawyer for Mohammed, Captain Jason Wright, said his client wants to be able to wear a military-style camouflage uniform, similar to what he wore as a member of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan during Soviet occupation.
Marine Major Joshua Kirk, a prosecuting attorney, said camouflage poses a threat to “good order and safety” and clothing shouldn’t be used “as a vehicle for propaganda.”
Pohl said he would permit camouflage outfits as long as they aren’t part of any U.S. military uniform.
The defendants so far have appeared in court wearing traditional Pakistani-style long shirts and vests with turbans.
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 yesterday.
“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.”
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 from 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.
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 judge will focus on 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).