Guantanamo court convenes amid chaos, confusion

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba, Jan 19 (Reuters) - The Guantanamo war crimes court convened in a chaotic session on Monday with accused Sept. 11 plotters disrupting the proceedings while U.S. government lawyers debated whether an administrative hiccup had left them facing any charges at all.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 hijacked plane plot, tried unsuccessfully to banish all Americans from his defense table in the courtroom at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and complained when the judge asked him to limit his comments.

"This is terrorism, not court. You don't give us opportunity to talk," Mohammed told the judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley.

Mohammed complained when a prosecutor characterized the charges against him and four co-defendants as the "murder" of nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children.

But Mohammed, who has repeatedly acknowledged his guilt on charges that could lead to his execution, later told the court, "We don't care about the capital punishment ... we are doing jihad for the cause of God."

Defendant Ramzi Binalshibh, whose mental competency to act as his own attorney is the subject of an ongoing challenge, told the court, "We did what we did and we are proud of this. We are proud of 9-11."

Problems with the Arabic-English interpretation and outbursts from the defendants punctuated what is widely expected to be the last week of hearings in the special Guantanamo tribunals established by the Bush administration to try non-U.S. captives on terrorism charges.


President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office on Tuesday, has said he will close the prison camp at Guantanamo and thinks the trials should be moved into the regular U.S. courts. Members of his transition team have hinted that Obama might issue an order freezing the trials shortly after he becomes commander in chief of the U.S. military.

But the immediate question facing the Guantanamo judges was whether the defendants still faced any charges.

The Bush administration appointee overseeing the tribunals, Susan Crawford, quietly dropped charges in all the pending cases in December and refiled them in early January.

It was a technical procedure aimed at updating jury pools that were assigned to the cases years ago.

Defense lawyers argued that the move had the effect of nullifying all the previous rulings in the ongoing cases, restarting the trial clock and requiring that the defendants be served with new copies of the charges and arraigned again.

They noted Crawford was a retired chief judge of the court of appeals for the U.S. armed forces who should have been well aware of the military court rules and that she had signed a letter specifically saying the charges had been "withdrawn" and refiled.

Henley said the documents had been "inartfully expressed" and "negligently executed." But he said a subsequent affidavit from Crawford made it clear that she had intended only to replace jurors who had retired or moved on to new assignments.

He ruled that the charges stood and the hearings could continue.

Mohammed, Binalshibh and three others -- Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, Walid bin Attash and Mohammed's nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali -- face 2,973 counts of murder, one for each person killed when al Qaeda militants crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Editing by Jim Loney and Sandra Maler