GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The self-styled mastermind of the September 11 attacks and four co-defendants told a military judge at Guantanamo on Monday that they wanted to confess and plead guilty.
But the defendants, some of whom have previously said they welcomed martyrdom, decided not to enter any pleas until after the judge decides whether guilty pleas would prevent their execution.
That means the death penalty case against the highest-ranking al Qaeda suspects in U.S. custody will not be resolved until after President-elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20.
Obama has said he will shut down the widely condemned Guantanamo prison camp and try detainees in the regular U.S. civilian or military courts rather than the special Guantanamo tribunals created by the Bush administration.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has already said he planned the September 11 attacks “from A to Z,” and the other four defendants announced their wish to plead guilty in a note written to the judge on November 4, the day Obama was elected to become the next U.S. president.
The note came as a surprise as the U.S. military resumed pretrial hearings at the Guantanamo naval base, in a remote U.S.-controlled corner of Cuba.
The judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley, read from the note, which began: “We all five have reached an agreement to request from the commission an immediate hearing session in order to announce our confessions ... with our earnest desire in this regard without being under any kind of pressure, threat, intimidations or promise from any party.”
The note said they wanted to drop all pending challenges filed by their military-appointed lawyers, whom they do not trust and have tried to fire.
“I am not trusting any Americans,” Mohammed said in English during an appearance before the judge.
The judge asked the lawyers to research whether the law underpinning the trials allowed him to accept guilty pleas in capital cases, and whether doing so would prevent his imposing the death penalty. He gave them until January 5, when the Guantanamo tribunals are next scheduled to convene, to submit briefs on the issue.
The defendants said they would wait for that answer. They also said they did not want to enter pleas until after the judge decides whether all five can act as their own attorneys. Three already have permission to do so.
“Our plea request was based on joint strategy and I would rather wait,” explained defendant Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, who is Mohammed’s nephew and accused of transferring money for al Qaeda and helping nine of the September 11 hijackers travel to the United States.
If the defendants are allowed to plead guilty, the case would still go through several automatic appeals, so any death sentence would likely not be carried out for years.
But human rights observers urged the judge to delay the proceedings until the Obama administration could move them into the regular U.S. courts and try them under traditional rules.
They noted the defendants had been held for years in secret CIA prisons before being sent to Guantanamo and that the CIA has acknowledged subjecting Mohammed to “waterboarding,” a simulated drowning technique widely viewed as torture.
“Allowing these pleas to go forward in proceedings that are widely viewed around the world to be a inherently unjust would be a hollow and short-sighted victory for the government,” said Elisa Massimino, executive director of Human Rights First.
“Ultimately it would undermine the ability of the United States to obtain legitimate justice for the 9/11 attacks in our ordinary criminal courts,” she said.
Mohammed, Ali and three others — Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi and Walid bin Attash — were charged earlier this year with conspiring to kill civilians.
They face 2,973 counts of murder, one for each person killed when al Qaeda militants crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
There is no chance the case would be ready for trial before Obama takes office. His transition team has met with officials from the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, which runs the Guantanamo tribunals, but details of the talks have not been made public.
The Pentagon arranged for members of five families who lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks to travel to Guantanamo for the proceedings, however.
Alice Hoagland, whose son Mark Bingham died in the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, called the defendants’ announcement “a real bombshell” and praised the judge for refusing to hastily accept guilty pleas.
“I’m really proud the commission (tribunal) is not taking the bait and proceeding in it’s slow, thoughtful and deliberate way despite ... the histrionics of these guys,” Hoagland said.
Editing by Tom Brown and David Wiessler