GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Two accused Sept. 11 plotters told a U.S. military war crimes court on Wednesday they had not been bullied by suspected al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and one said the allegation resulted from the misunderstanding of a joke.
Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi made their second appearances before the court at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were questioned about whether Mohammed coerced them into refusing lawyers and defending themselves in trials that could bring death sentences.
Hawsawi’s military lawyer, Army Maj. Jon Jackson, had complained that Mohammed bullied Hawsawi into abandoning his intent to accept a military lawyer at his first hearing on June 5, when five alleged September 11 conspirators appeared together.
He quoted Mohammed as telling Hawsawi, “What are you, in the American Army now?”
The military judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, set up hearings this week to allow the five accused to appear separately so he could ask them whether they were intimidated or coerced by any of their co-defendants.
Kohlmann explained the meaning of the word intimidate to both men and asked a series of questions about whether they were threatened, ordered or influenced. Both said no.
Ali, who is Mohammed’s nephew, said the allegation resulted from a misunderstanding. He said Mohammed was joking with Hawsawi about his clothes and suggested the Western translators did not understand the defendants’ culture or humor.
“He said, ‘What are you in the American Navy now, just joking with him,” Ali said.
“Nobody is in such a position to give me an order,” he said, calling himself a free human being, “not a slave.”
The issue of legal representation has slowed the cases before the Guantanamo tribunals, the first U.S. war crimes tribunals since World War Two, which have been widely criticized by human rights groups.
Hawsawi, Mohammed, Ali and two others, Ramzi Binalshibh and Walid bin Attash, are charged with conspiring with al Qaeda to kill civilians in the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacked airliner attacks on the United States, which launched the Bush administration’s global war on terrorism.
They 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.
Kohlmann issued a stern warning about the ramifications of not accepting a lawyer to Ali and Hawsawi, both bearded men who wore heavy-rimmed glasses and traditional white garb. Ali spoke English in court while Hawsawi followed the proceedings through an interpreter.
Kohlmann told them if they acted as their own lawyers they could have trouble mounting a defense from prison, with no ability to investigate or find helpful witnesses, and would not have access to classified material that could be evidence against them.
“I think it would be unwise for you to represent yourself,” Kohlmann said.
Ali, who displayed some legal knowledge and complained he had written a legal motion and two letters that were not delivered to the judge, said he might seek access to classified documents.
“I understand the government doesn’t want to provide me with this information but I might challenge that,” he said.
Kohlmann accepted Ali’s demand to represent himself.
Hawsawi said he needed more time to decide whether to defend himself or accept lawyers. Kohlmann told him that until he made the decision, the court would leave in place two military lawyers appointed to help him.
Both men are accused of being facilitators in the September 11 plot. Prosecutors allege Hawsawi he helped some of the hijackers buy clothes, food and plane tickets and say Ali bought Boeing 747 flight simulator software, videos on cockpit operations, and shipped money to U.S.-based operatives.
About 265 detainees are held at the Guantanamo prison, which opened in 2002. Only 20 have been charged with crimes.
Editing by Alan Elsner and Jane Sutton