GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Accused September 11 plotter Ramzi Binalshibh failed to appear at a Guantanamo war crimes court hearing and a U.S. military judge ordered that he be brought in by force if necessary on Tuesday.
However, the judge on Monday also allowed four accused co-conspirators of the suspect, whose mental competency is in question, to write notes urging him to show up voluntarily and avoid the trauma of a “forced cell extraction.”
A military prosecutor said he hoped to avert any attempt to challenge the legitimacy of the Guantanamo trials by absent defendants forcing an “empty chair” trial.
Suspects in future cases should not have a choice, said Col. Lawrence Morris, lead prosecutor for the military commissions trying terrorism cases at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval base.
“Our position is, you don’t get to opt out,” Morris told reporters. “The people, the system, the interest of justice have an interest in the accused being present.”
Binalshibh, who is charged with being a go-between for senior al Qaeda leaders and the September 11 hijackers, was absent for the hearing on pretrial motions. His military lawyer, Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, said she was told he had refused to come.
Prosecutors said officers in charge of the detention center were reluctant to remove him without a court order and tribunal judge Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann eventually ruled that Binalshibh be brought to court on Tuesday.
He rejected a request by accused September 11 organizer Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and fellow suspect Walid bin Attash to meet with Binalshibh. But he said all four accused plotters could meet in the courtroom and write Binalshibh.
“We don’t have to do any fighting with Mr. Ramzi because things will just get worse. He doesn’t trust anybody in the government but he will trust us,” bin Attash, who has admitted to planning the attack on the U.S. Naval destroyer Cole, said through a translator.
“We look at this situation that we’ve all been in and we’ve all lost faith,” bin Attash said.
Binalshibh has been treated with a medication used to treat schizophrenia, Lachelier told the court. Two military psychiatrists have been assigned to determine whether Binalshibh is competent to act as his own attorney, and Kohlmann denied a defense request to suspend proceedings pending their report.
Binalshibh’s attorneys described the suspects’ letters, which they read after the hearings, as “plain vanilla” pleas for unity couched in elaborate language with references to the Koran. Attorney Thomas Durkin said one letter cautioned, “You don’t want to be forcibly removed.”
The letters were subjected to a security screening.
Several captives facing charges at Guantanamo have challenged the legitimacy of the special tribunals, which were set up to try non-U.S. citizens on terrorism charges outside the regular civilian and military courts. Many have refused in varying ways to participate.
The September 11 defendants, former CIA prisoners considered “high-value detainees,” are kept in isolation in a secret facility, apart from the rest of the Guantanamo population of about 250.
Binalshibh, Mohammed, bin Attash and the other two defendants, Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, are charged with conspiring with al Qaeda to kill civilians in the hijacked airliner attacks on the United States, which launched the Bush administration’s global war on terrorism.
The men face 2,973 counts of murder, one for each person killed when the passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. Prosecutors want to execute them if they are convicted.
Reporting by Randall Mikkelsen, editing by Jim Loney and Cynthia Osterman