Five men facing trial for 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon returned to a military courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the first time since February, to hear a U.S. vice admiral testify he wasn’t pressured to bring charges against them.
Accused mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed wore a camouflage jacket and his four accused accomplices were clad in traditional Gulf and Afghan Arab garb at yesterday’s court session. Unlike court appearances over the past year, the men were mostly silent and didn’t take steps to disrupt the proceedings. At the end of the day, the judge denied a lawyer’s request to allow Ramzi bin al Shibh, who is accused of financing the attacks, to speak.
Five days of pre-trial hearings got under way as retired Vice Admiral Bruce MacDonald, the former civilian head of the military tribunal, returned to the witness stand to answer questions from defense lawyers. The defense is seeking to show that MacDonald was improperly swayed by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and other U.S. officials in deciding last year to refer the case to a tribunal and seek the death penalty.
“We talked to nobody in the White House, in the administration, about the referral,” MacDonald told defense lawyer Walter Ruiz, who represents Mustafa al Hawsawi, a Saudi who allegedly helped finance the hijackers.
“Did you feel you were under any political pressure?” asked James Harrington, the lawyer for bin al Shibh.
“No,” MacDonald replied.
Mohammed and the four others are accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that used hijacked passenger airplanes to kill almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the Pentagon in Virginia, and in Pennsylvania.
They are charged with conspiring to finance, train and direct the 19 hijackers who seized the four planes, as well as terrorism, hijacking aircraft, conspiracy, murder in violation of the laws of war and attacking civilians. A trial is at least a year away.
The five were last in court in February, when proceedings bogged down over defense lawyers’ claim that the government was eavesdropping on meetings with their clients. MacDonald began his testimony at the time.
This week, the judge, U.S. Army Colonel James Pohl, will hear legal motions that may include a request from two defendants to bar the military from force-feeding them.
The prison camp had 104 of its 166 inmates on hunger strikes as of yesterday, with 44 being force-fed, according to Army Lieutenant Colonel Samuel House, a camp spokesman. Two of the inmates being force-fed are in a hospital, though they don’t have life-threatening conditions, he said.
MacDonald had previously served as “convening authority” of the military tribunal. The convening authority’s powers include designating the charges on which the accused are to be tried and selecting members of the jury that will eventually hear the case.
Defense lawyers are seeking to show that MacDonald was improperly influenced before referring the charges to the tribunal, didn’t give the defense a chance to submit evidence to him and had interfered in confidential lawyer-client communications.
MacDonald, testifying from the U.S. over a close-circuit video feed, said he had authorized the military to monitor and record the lawyers’ phone calls with their clients “to prevent any third parties from joining the conversations.” A broadcast of the testimony was viewed by reporters at Fort Meade, Maryland, near Washington.
As the day wore on, MacDonald sparred with defense lawyers over whether he had given them enough time in 2011 to present evidence favorable to their clients.
Harrington told MacDonald that he hadn’t been permitted to meet bin al Shibh for many months after being appointed as his lawyer. Defense attorney David Nevin said he had been barred under military rules from discussing with Mohammed critical topics that may have served as mitigation, including the nature of “jihad,” or religious duty.
“I thought two months was sufficient time,” MacDonald said.
It’s unclear if the five men will return to court today. They each said, “yes,” when Pohl told them they have a right not to attend court proceedings.
The case is U.S. v. Mohammed, Military Commissions Trial (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba).