Self-declared 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be allowed to wear military-style camouflage at his Guantanamo Bay trial, a U.S. military judge ruled Tuesday.
The issue of what he and his four alleged co-conspirators will wear when they eventually appear before a military tribunal at the U.S. base in Cuba was one of several up for debate at pre-trial hearings here this week.
“Mr. Mohammed is a detained enemy prisoner of war. He wanted to wear the same type of uniform he wore while fighting for the U.S.-supported mujahedeen in Afghanistan and in Bosnia,” argued military lawyer Captain Jason Wright.
The defense also said it would argue that the defendants had not been, as the prosecution alleges, “unlawful combatants” but soldiers and thus denying them the right to military-style clothing would undermine his case.
Prosecutors argued Sheikh Mohammed should not be allowed to wear a uniform for security reasons, but the military judge, Colonel James Pohl, dismissed this concern.
“Look around the room. How many guards are here?” he said.
“I’m not going to forbid the camouflage vest unless it is a U.S. army uniform. The only prohibition - the accused cannot wear clothing inconsistent with his confinement status.”
Before Sheikh Mohammed, by his own admission, joined Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network and organized the attacks of September 11, 2001 on New York and Washington, he fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s.
In that war, the Afghan resistance was backed by foreign Islamist volunteers, supported in turn with weapons and cash by the United States and Saudi Arabia, before some of them went on to become anti-Western militants.
Also at issue is the extent to which the case will be on the public record.
Military prosecutors argue that, as the men were detained and interrogated by CIA agents, much of what they might have to say must be classed top secret, to avoid revealing clandestine tactics.
But the cloak of secrecy has become ridiculous, the defense claims, arguing that Guantanamo censors delay notes from their clients to their families and, in another case, even delayed a defendant’s opinion on a sports star.
Defense lawyer Kevin Bogucki - who represents Sheikh Mohammed’s co-defendant Ramzi Binalshibh - said Muhammed Rahim, an Afghan defendant in another trial, sent him a note stating: “LeBron James is very bad man.”
This was not a coded message, but Rahim's opinion on James’ 2010 decision to quit the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team and join the Miami Heat.
Nevertheless, Bogucki said, censors took two months to pass it on.
On another occasion, the same censors took two months to declassify a note written by Binalshibh, a Yemeni who rented a flat in Germany with chief 9/11 attacker Mohammed Atta, to his family.
“I couldn't even say to my clients’ children: Your father wants you to obey your mother,” Bogucki said.
This week’s hearing is the latest stage in Sheikh Mohammed’s long and meandering journey towards an eventual trial over the 9/11 attacks.
Each step of the process, held under military law and tight security, has been contested by the defense teams and human rights bodies.
Journalists have been allowed to attend, but are kept behind a sound-proof screen and fed audio of the hearing with a 40-second delay, in case defendants or lawyers blurt out material the judge has ruled out of bounds.
“The 40-second delay is simply a device for unexpected disclosure,” Pohl said Tuesday. “I just see an abundance of caution, if something comes out.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and media groups have demanded the judge guarantee the transparency of proceedings amid fears that some sessions will be conducted in secret to conceal official abuses.
“American courts don’t have a censorship chamber that separates the public from court,” the ACLU’s lawyer Hina Shamsi said, arguing that the public has a “compelling interest” in the most important terrorism case of the era.
She told the court that Americans have the right to hear “the defendant’s accounts of torture... black sites and enhanced interrogation techniques to which the CIA subjected them.”
It is already 11 years since the attacks, and nine-and-a-half years since Sheikh Mohammed was captured in Pakistan.
He is accused of orchestrating the hijacked airliner plot that left 2,976 people dead, while his alleged al-Qaeda accomplices are charged with providing funding and other support for those who crashed the planes.
All five face the death penalty if convicted.
Sheikh Mohammed, a Kuwaiti-born Pakistani who attended university in the United States, was regarded as one of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s most trusted and intelligent lieutenants.
In addition to felling the Twin Towers, the trained engineer claims to have beheaded US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 with his “blessed right hand” and to have helped in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six.