GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The accused al Qaeda mastermind of the September 11 attacks stood in a U.S. military court on Thursday, sang a chant of praise to Allah and said he would welcome the death penalty.
“This is what I wish, to be martyred,” Pakistani captive Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the highest-ranking al Qaeda operative in U.S. custody, told the Guantanamo war crimes court.
He and four accused co-conspirators appeared in court at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba for the first time on charges that could result in their execution.
As the judge questioned him about whether he was satisfied with the U.S. military lawyer appointed to defend him, Mohammed stood and began to sing in Arabic, cheerfully pausing to translate his own words into English.
“My shield is Allah most high,” he said, adding that his religion forbade him from accepting a lawyer from the United States and that he wanted to act as his own attorney.
He criticized the United States for fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, waging what he called “a crusader war,” and enacting “evil laws” including those authorizing same-sex marriages.
Mohammed wore a long, bushy gray beard and big black military-issue glasses and looked far older than his 43 years. He wore a neat white tunic and turban, in stark contrast to the saggy white undershirt he wore in photographs taken after his capture during a raid in Pakistan in March 2003.
Mohammed and co-defendants Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi and Walid bin Attash are charged with conspiring with al Qaeda to murder civilians in the 2001 attacks that launched the Bush administration’s global war on terrorism.
They also face 2,973 counts of murder, one for each person killed when hijacked passenger planes slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
The judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, tried to persuade the men to accept their military lawyers, but all refused.
Aziz Ali said he had barely been allowed to meet with his lawyer anyway and described him as “a signboard” hung up so the government could say, ‘Hey, we give these people lawyers.’”
“All this is just a stage play,” he said.
Binalshibh, whom the lawyers said was receiving psychotropic medication, wore leg chains bolted to the floor but the rest of the accused were unshackled in the courtroom.
A security officer cut the audio feed to the spectators’ section when he described the reason for the medicine, and again when another defendant discussed his capture.
Binalshibh said he had sought martyrdom since trying and failing to get a U.S. visa “for 9/11” but that his life was in God’s hands and that “America and the whole world cannot extend my life by one day or make it one day earlier.”
Mohammed told a military review panel last year that he approached Osama bin Laden with the proposal to hijack passenger planes and crash them into landmark U.S. buildings, then oversaw execution of the plan “from A to Z,” according to U.S. military transcripts of the hearing.
But Mohammed cast doubt on that transcript in Thursday’s hearing. “They mistranslated my words and put many words in my mouth,” he said in broken English learned as an engineering student in North Carolina.
He called the trial “an inquisition” and added, “All of this has been taken under torturing. You know that very well.”
The other defendants are accused of helping choose, train and fund the 19 hijackers, assisting their flight school enrollment and travel to the United States.
The five alleged conspirators chatted together before and during the day-long hearing. According to Hawasi’s military lawyer, Mohammed bullied Hawasi into abandoning his intent to accept a military lawyer.
“What are you, in the American Army now?” the lawyer, Army Maj. Jon Jackson, quoted Mohammed as telling Hawsawi.
All five were transferred to Guantanamo in September 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.
Defense lawyers have said they will challenge any attempt to introduce evidence tainted by abuse but they may not get that chance if the defendants represent themselves.
Prosecutors want to start the trial on September 15, a date the defense says was chosen to influence the U.S. presidential election in November.
Editing by Vicki Allen