Five Guantanamo prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 attacks have been formally charged with crimes including murder and terrorism in a chaotic marathon hearing.
Confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other accused opted to defer their pleas at Saturday’s proceedings in a military tribunal at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- which lasted more than 13 hours.
The military tribunal was adjourned until June 12.
The five face the death penalty if convicted for their roles in the terror attacks by al-Qaeda militants in which hijacked planes were used to strike New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing 2,976 people.
The defendants were charged with “conspiracy, attacking civilians, murder and violation of the law of war, destruction, hijacking and terrorism” in connection with the attacks, the most lethal on US soil in modern history.
Mohammed, 47, was charged along with his Pakistani nephew Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, also known as Ammar al-Baluchi; Mustapha al-Hawsawi of Saudi Arabia; and Yemenis Ramzi Binalshibh and Walid bin Attash.
After defying the court for more than nine hours by keeping silent, Mohammed and the co-defendants -- in a much-anticipated first public appearance in three years -- finally deferred their pleas.
“Maybe you’re not going to see us any more,” Binalshibh shouted out in a dramatic moment at the arraignment hearing, telling Judge James Pohl, “You are going to kill us.”
Dressed in white jumpsuits, with some wearing white turbans, the men mostly refused to engage with the court officials -- reading what looked to be the Koran, keeping their eyes fixed on the ground, or kneeling to pray.
The defendants also passed a copy of The Economist magazine among themselves.
“Accused refused to answer,” Pohl repeated over and over again.
At one point, Binalshibh suddenly stood to pray, interrupting the hearing.
He also shouted out: “The era of Qaddafi is over but you have Qaddafi in the camp ... you are going to kill us and say that we are committing suicide,” referring to the slain former Libyan strongman.
Only one, bin Attash, was handcuffed when the group was brought into court, but Pohl ordered the cuffs removed after being assured he would “behave appropriately.”
The arraignment, one of the last steps before a so-called “trial of the century” can take place, marks the second time the United States has tried to prosecute the 9/11 suspects.
Mohammed remained calm, his long, flowing beard appearing to have been dyed with red henna.
His lawyer David Nevin said his client, who three years ago confessed to the 9/11 attacks “from A to Z,” probably would not speak at the hearing because he is “deeply concerned by the fairness of the process.”
Meanwhile, the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, said it would be at least a year before the trial started.
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 highjackings. 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.
Praying in court
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.”