GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The U.S. war crimes trial of Osama bin Laden’s accused media director began on Monday with silence from the defense side of the Guantanamo Bay courtroom after the judge ruled the Yemeni defendant had the right to stand mute and offer no defense.
Defendant Ali Hamza al Bahlul came to the courtroom at the U.S. naval base voluntarily, but is refusing to participate because he does not feel the tribunal is legitimate.
“I will be joining Mr. al Bahlul’s boycott of the proceedings, standing mute at the table,” said his U.S. military-appointed lawyer, Air Force Maj. David Frakt.
The judge, Air Force Col. David Gregory, said the rules allow Frakt to honor his client’s wishes by doing nothing, since the prosecution has the burden of proving the charges. His further questions to the defense were met with silence.
Bahlul is accused of preparing al Qaeda recruiting materials, including a video glorifying the 2000 attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors on the warship USS Cole, preparing the videotaped will of September 11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, and operating communications gear and being a bodyguard for bin Laden.
Bahlul, a man so loquacious that other prisoners have begged not to be held in cells adjacent to his, had made lengthy statements in previous hearings. He acknowledged that “I am from al Qaeda,” expressed loyalty to bin Laden and called the judge his enemy.
The judge ruled those statements cannot be used as evidence against him because they were made in the limited context of explaining his intent to boycott.
Bahlul, who is about 38, is charged with conspiring with al Qaeda, soliciting to commit murder and providing material support for terrorism. He faces life in prison if convicted.
He stayed silent as a jury of nine U.S. military officers was chosen. Six of the nine served on the panel that sentenced Australian former prisoner David Hicks in 2007 to the maximum term of seven years in prison for providing material support for terrorism, only to learn the al Qaeda trainee’s agreement to plead guilty had suspended all but nine months of it.
Bahlul’s trial is only the second in the special tribunals the Bush administration created to try non-U.S. captives on terrorism charges without the protections normally granted to civilians and soldiers. Bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamdan, who is also from Yemen, was convicted at the first one in August of providing material support for terrorism.
Only one more trial is scheduled before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January, that of a young Afghan accused of throwing a grenade that wounded two U.S. soldiers and their interpreter.
Both major party candidates vying to succeed Bush have said they will close the Guantanamo prison, which is widely viewed as a stain on the reputation of the United States.
About 255 suspected members of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other associated groups have been imprisoned for as long as 6-1/2 years without trial at Guantanamo, which once held as many as 600 detainees.
Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama has said the captives should be tried in the regular U.S. courts. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has said they should be tried in the United States, but under the special tribunal system.
Prosecutors planned to call up to 31 witnesses against Bahlul, including three of the “Lackawanna Six,” a group of men from Lackawanna, New York, who admitted in a U.S. federal court that they went to an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in the spring of 2001.
The six Americans of Yemeni descent, who are serving prison terms on charges of providing material support for terrorism, are cooperating with the U.S. government. The Guantanamo charges accuse Bahlul of wrongfully soliciting five of them.
Prosecutors also planned to call as witnesses the man who commanded the USS Cole when it was hit by a bomb-laden boat in the Yemeni port of Aden, retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, and the parents of at least one sailor killed in the attack.
Editing by Jim Loney and Patricia Zengerle