World News

September 11 suspects may testify at Guantanamo trial

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Accused September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and some of his co-defendants may have relevant evidence to offer as defence witnesses for Osama bin Laden’s former chauffeur at the Guantanamo war court, a military judge said on Monday.

Prosecutors have suggested that testimony from Mohammed and the other “high-value” Guantanamo prisoners, whose words are considered classified secrets, could jeopardize U.S. national security.

The war court at the isolated U.S. naval base in southeastern Cuba heard legal motions on Monday in the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who is scheduled to be the first Guantanamo prisoner to go to trial next week before the first U.S. military tribunals since World War Two.

Hamdan, a Yemeni in his late 30s, is charged with conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. Prosecutors have argued he was a willing participant in al Qaeda while his lawyers say he was a member of a motor pool and drove bin Laden because he needed the $200 monthly salary.

Hamdan’s lawyers want to call eight detainees as witnesses for their client, including Mohammed, three other alleged September 11 plotters -- Walid bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh and Mustafa al Hawsawi -- and other prisoners. They say Mohammed and bin Attash could offer evidence to exonerate Hamdan.

Navy Capt. Keith Allred, the military judge, told the two sides to try to work out how the war court could hear the testimony. He said he did not see how he could hold a fair trial without evidence from the potential witnesses.

“I see this as relevant and necessary and exculpatory evidence,” he said.

Prosecutor Clayton Trivett said the detainees “hold in their heads” some of America’s most serious national security information including intelligence “sources and methods.”

“Without being able to protect those sources and methods it’s not the sky that might be falling but another building,” he said, apparently referring to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.


Hamdan’s lawyers later said they believed prosecutors wanted to protect information about CIA interrogation methods. The five September 11 suspects, who face murder, conspiracy and terrorism charges, were transferred to Guantanamo in 2006 after spending about three years in secret CIA prisons.

The CIA has acknowledged interrogating Mohammed using a simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding and condemned as torture by human rights observers.

Hamdan, wearing a traditional headdress and a white gown under a Western-style blazer, was flanked by two lawyers on either side as he listened to the legal arguments at the war court, which has been heavily criticized by human and legal rights organizations. He faces life in prison if convicted.

With a week to go before trial, defence lawyers said they might seek sanctions against prosecutors for giving them 600 pages of documents just two days ago that should have been made available months earlier.

In the papers, they said, was evidence that Hamdan had been subjected to “Operation Sandman,” which has been described in press accounts as a sleep deprivation program.

They said he may have been deprived of sleep for 50 days, equating such treatment with torture.

More than six years after the United States began sending captives to the Guantanamo base, not a single case has gone to trial. Hamdan’s would be the first.

Hamdan’s lawyers have argued that prolonged solitary confinement at Guantanamo has impaired him mentally and compromised his ability to aid in his defence. On Monday, they accepted a court-ordered mental competency exam that found him fit to stand trial but said they might raise the issue again later, saying he continued to suffer from his imprisonment.

Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman