'Mastermind' of 9/11 refuses to answer US army judge
THE self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, and four other accused terrorists disrupted the first stage of their trial on charges of terrorism and mass murder at a Guantanamo Bay military court yesterday by refusing to acknowledge the judge.
The men, one of whom was brought to the arraignment hearing strapped to a restraint chair after refusing to attend, dropped their previous insistence on pleading guilty and demanding to be executed in favour of refusing to answer the judge's questions, as their lawyers attempted to raise the torture of the accused while in Central Intelligence Agency custody.
Mohammed and his co-defendants -- Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi and Walid bin Attash -- face 2,976 counts of murder for each of the victims who died on 9/11 as well as charges of terrorism, hijacking, conspiracy and destruction of property. The prosecution is seeking the death penalty for all of them.
Yesterday's hearing was called to set a date for what is expected to be a drawn-out trial before a military court already facing strong criticism of its legitimacy. Defence lawyers promised a lengthy fight, with challenges to the legality of the tribunal and rules that forbid any mention of the torture of the defendants under US interrogation.
"This is only the beginning of a trial that will take years to complete, followed by years of appellate review," said James Connell, who represents al-Aziz Ali.
At a similar hearing in 2008, Mohammed mocked the court and tried to plead guilty, saying he wanted to be put to death as a martyr. But the US Supreme Court later struck down the rules of evidence and the trial was called off. He has also compared himself to George Washington and demanded to be treated as a combatant, not a terrorist.
Defence lawyers yesterday suggested that the accused men would this time choose not to plea.
Instead, in their first public appearance in more than three years, they refused to participate in what was at times a chaotic hearing.
They generally sat quietly, dressed entirely in the white clothes they were required to wear by their military jailers. But one of them interrupted by suddenly standing, then kneeling to pray. The others, including Mohammed, removed their headphones providing Arabic translation.
His lawyer, David Nevin, said it was because of his treatment while in detention.
"The reason he's not putting the headphones in his ears is because of the torture imposed on him," he said.
Mr Nevin asked to be allowed to elaborate but the judge, Colonel James Pohl, refused to let him. Col Pohl said that, if the men refused to participate in proceedings, then in due course a plea of not guilty would be entered on their behalf.
The torture issue has badly tainted the military tribunal, the second attempt to put the men on trial after the Supreme Court blocked the earlier trial.