Toothache Prompts Pause in Guantanamo Sept. 11 Hearings

A fifth day of pretrial hearings in the case against five men accused of masterminding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks paused when the military judge refused to proceed until learning more about one suspect’s toothache.

The judge, U.S. Army Colonel James Pohl, halted proceedings for an hour this morning at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because he wasn’t sure why Ammar al Baluchi wasn’t in court. The judge sent a military officer back to al Baluchi’s cell at a distant prison camp to ask whether he waived his attendance because of the toothache or for some other reason.

“At this point before me, I have an issue of non-waiver,” Pohl said at the start of today’s hearing.

The adjournment was the latest delay in legal proceedings that are moving at a snail’s pace. Entire weeks of pretrial hearings have been lost because of weather or technical problems, while other logistical glitches, along with related legal issues, have slowed days of testimony.

Al Baluchi, who’s accused of helping finance the attacks, and his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, are among five defendants facing trial for organizing the hijacking of passenger airplanes that killed almost 3,000 people when they were crashed into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the Pentagon in Virginia, and in a field in Pennsylvania.

The five may face the death penalty if convicted before a military tribunal. 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.

Military Witness

The five detainees have been in court for a week of hearings, which the judge seeks to schedule every other month. Whenever a defendant elects not to attend court, a military officer begins the day by taking the witness stand and testifying about his absence.

Today, Lt. Commander George Massucco testified about the absence of two defendants, al Baluchi and Mustafa al Hawsawi, who’s also accused of helping finance the attacks.

Massucco said he went to al Baluchi’s cell shortly before 6 a.m. and asked if he wanted to attend. Al Baluchi, also known as Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, put a hand to his face and said no, complaining of a toothache and possibly a broken tooth, Massucco said.

On cross-examination, defense lawyer James Connell began asking about the extent of his client’s toothache and whether he was receiving medical attention. That prompted Pohl to ask why Connell was posing such questions. Connell said he wanted to know why his client elected to skip court: because of his toothache or for some other reason.

Chipped Tooth

Pohl called an adjournment to learn more about al Baluchi’s toothache and whether his decision not to appear in court was voluntary. An hour later, Massucco returned to say al Baluchi had intended to appear in court until chipping a tooth last night. Al Baluchi said his waiver was voluntarily, Massucco said.

With hearings resumed, Connell questioned a military lawyer about a search of legal documents in the detainees’ possession and about prison rules that the defense says interferes with the lawyer-client relationship.

One such rule bars the defense lawyers from showing their clients documents about the historical nature of jihad.

A broadcast of the testimony was viewed by reporters at Fort Meade, Maryland, near Washington.

The case is U.S. v. Mohammed, Military Commissions Trial (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba).

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