September 11 pre-trial begins with calm at Guantanamo Bay

Alleged September 11 conspirators sit quietly, co-operate with lawyers and answer the judge

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2012, 5:43am

There were no rants this time, no ignoring the judge or getting out of their seats to pray - just one scornful remark from the professed mastermind of the September 11 attacks, as long- delayed efforts to try him and four alleged co-conspirators resumed at Guantanamo Bay.

The start of a week-long pre-trial hearing for the five detainees began on Monday. It was a sharply different atmosphere as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants returned to court at the US base in Cuba for the first time since their arraignment in May, when their concerted effort to disrupt the proceedings turned into an unruly, 13-hour spectacle.

This time, the defendants sat quietly, co-operated with their lawyers and responded to the judge when asked. And they won a small victory: The judge granted a defence request to allow the five men to skip the rest of the week's hearing if they choose.

Asked if he understood the implications of not attending court while hearings go on without him, Mohammed made his only statement of the day: "Yes, but I don't think there is any justice in this court."

The issue was only one of a handful to be resolved Monday in a hearing on about two dozen motions before the formal trial, which is at least a year away. Most of the day was taken up by the debate over whether defendants must attend all proceedings under the rules of the special tribunals for wartime offences known as military commissions.

Lawyers for two of the defendants said the threat to forcibly remove them from their cells and bring them to court is traumatic for men who were subjected to harsh interrogations that they say amounted to torture.

"Our clients may believe that ... 'I don't want to be subjected to this procedure that transports me here, brings up memories, brings up emotions of things that happened to me'," said Jim Harrington, who represents Ramzi bin al-Shaibah, accused of helping to provide support to the hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Centre, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.

Harrington's statement elicited groans from a small group of family members of September 11 victims who were chosen by lottery to come to Guantanamo to view the proceedings.

Prosecutors wanted the men to be required to attend court sessions. The judge, Army Colonel James Pohl finally ruled that Mohammed and his co-defendants would not be forced to attend the hearings. He said he may require them to attend future pre-trial sessions and said they would have to be present for their trial.

His questioning brought a rare light moment to what is considered one of the most significant prosecutions in US history.

The judge told each man that the trial would go on without them if they were to somehow escape from US custody, drawing a smile of disbelief from Bin al-Shaibah. "I'm escaping from custody?" he said in English.

The same suggestion prompted some sarcasm from Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, a Pakistani citizen accused of funnelling money to the hijackers. "I'll make sure to leave some notes," he said in English.

Mohammed, dressed in a white headdress, his beard dyed a rusty orange with henna, sat serenely reading legal papers or following the procedures in a specially designed hi-tech courtroom that allows the government to muffle sounds so spectators behind a glass wall cannot hear classified information.

The orderly scene was in stark contrast to the May arraignment. At that session, one prisoner was briefly restrained for acting out, Bin al-Shaibah launched into an incoherent rant, the men often ignored the judge and refused to use the court translation system.

Mohammed's civilian lawyer, David Nevin, said he wasn't sure if Mohammed would show up for court the rest of the week."Still front and centre in everything that's going on is what Mohammed said when he had a chance to talk," said Nevin, a prominent US death penalty lawyer. "He said 'There is no justice here.' That's the problem. That was the problem then. That's the problem now. It'll be the problem tomorrow and the day after that.'"