GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The arraignment of five Guantanamo prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 attacks got off to a chaotic start on Saturday when all the defendants defiantly refused to answer the judge’s questions and one made outbursts in court.
Defense lawyers answered routine questions about their resumes with complaints that the proceedings were unfair and that the defendants had been abused. The judge struggled to keep the proceedings in the death penalty case on track.
“Why is this so hard?” asked the exasperated judge, Army Colonel James Pohl.
Star defendant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the September 11 hijacked plane attacks, refused to respond to the judge’s questions about whether he was satisfied with his U.S. military and civilian lawyers.
“I believe Mr. Mohammed will decline to address the court. I believe he’s deeply concerned about the fairness of the proceeding,” said his civilian lawyer, David Nevin.
Mohammed, a 47-year-old Pakistani, looked haggard and his full, scraggly beard had a reddish tinge. He wore a round white turban and white tunic.
The military tribunal hearing on charges that include murdering 2,976 people in the 9/11 attacks marked the first time Mohammed and his four co-defendants had been seen in public in about three years.
They are accused of conspiring with Osama bin Laden, murder in violation of the laws of war, hijacking, terrorism and other charges stemming from the 2001 hijacked plane attacks that propelled the United States into a deadly, costly and ongoing global war against al Qaeda and its supporters.
A previous attempt to prosecute them in the Guantanamo war crimes tribunal was halted when the Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to move the case into a New York federal court. It started anew on Saturday in a disorderly hearing in the top-security courtroom at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba.
Yemeni defendant Ramzi Binalshibh knelt on the gray-carpeted courtroom floor and prayed as a row of burly guards in camouflage uniforms kept a close watch but did not interfere. Later he stood and shouted, and seemed to be saying that the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was being held at Guantanamo. He said tricks were being played on the defendants inside the prison camp and that “maybe they are going to kill us at the camp ... and say that we are committing suicide.”
Yemeni defendant Walid bin Attash refused to come into the court and was strapped into a restraining chair and wheeled in by the guards. His prosthetic leg was brought in later. It replaces the right leg he lost during a 1997 battle in Afghanistan. The judge later freed him from the chair after he promised to behave inside the courtroom.
The defendants refused to listen through earphones to English-Arabic translations of the judge’s questions. The judge recessed the hearing and then resumed it with an interpreter providing a translation that was broadcast over a loudspeaker into the court, sometimes drowning out the conversation between the lawyers and the judge.
Cheryl Borman, a civilian attorney for bin Attash, wore a black hijab and long black robe and told the court that the treatment of her client at Guantanamo had interfered with his ability to participate in the proceedings.
“These men have been mistreated,” Borman said.
The judge said that until the question of the men’s legal representation was settled, the attorneys had no standing to raise other issues.
The defendants prayed and chatted among themselves during recesses, and passed around a copy of The Economist magazine. But they refused to answer the judge’s questions. He ruled that they would be represented by the lawyers assigned to them. In addition to their military lawyers, each has a civilian attorney with experience in death penalty cases.
A closed-circuit TV feed, which was being relayed to seven viewing sites at military bases in the United States for journalists and family members of victims, was interrupted when the defense attorneys tried to discuss the way the defendants had been treated and used the word “torture.”
The judge grew testy as the defense lawyers repeatedly tried to raise the torture issue and complained that camp administrators were interfering with their efforts to represent the defendants. The judge said the rules required him to address the issues in the proper order.
“We’ll get to it when I said we’ll get to it,” Pohl snapped at one of the defense lawyers. “I told you, I‘m going to do it when we get to it.”
Later in the day, the proceedings got bogged down in repeated questions put to the judge about his background and qualifications. All five legal teams were entitled to ask such questions, and it was not immediately clear how long the court session would last.
At an arraignment hearing, once lawyers have been sworn in to represent the defendants, charges are read unless the defendants waive the reading.
The defendants are then asked whether they want to enter a plea or defer doing so until later, but none of that had happened as of late Saturday afternoon.
All five defendants were held for more than three years in secret CIA prisons before being sent to Guantanamo in 2006, and all have said they were tortured there. The CIA said Mohammed alone was subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding 183 times.
A small group of people whose relatives died in the attacks were chosen by lottery to travel to the remote base to watch the hearing from behind a glass wall in the spectators’ gallery.
Cliff Russell, whose firefighter brother Stephen Russell, 40, was killed at the World Trade Center, said he was comfortable with the death penalty for the defendants and wished them “the worst death possible.”
“I think I have all the evidence I need,” said Russell, who helped recover the remains of 23 people from the ashes and rubble of the Trade Center. “I tasted death, literally.”
He said the taste lingered in his throat and that he hoped that the trial “would be the process that gets rid of that for me.”
Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Beech