NEW YORK (AP) — Nearly 11 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, family members of some of the victims watched via closed-circuit TV as the self-proclaimed mastermind of the attacks and four co-defendants were arraigned Saturday at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a proceeding that left one father emotional as he recalled the loss of his firefighter son.
Seated in military movie theaters, with chaplains and grief counselors on hand, the relatives of those lost got their first glimpse of a long-awaited legal process that is likely to stretch on for many months.
“I’m here for him, because he can no longer speak for himself,” Riches said.
He choked up as he said that seeing the five men brought to justice would not bring his son back. “I miss him terribly,” he said.
Riches, himself a retired firefighter who worked digging up remains in the days after Sept. 11, said he carried with him dark memories of the days after the attacks, and he hoped that if convicted the five men would be executed.
“I saw what they did to our loved ones — crushed them to pieces,” he said.
Fort Hamilton was one of four military bases where the hearing was broadcast live for victims’ family members, survivors and emergency personnel who responded to the attacks. The others were Fort Devens in Massachusetts, Joint Base McGuire Dix in New Jersey and Fort Meade in Maryland, the only one open to the public. Riches said about 60 people representing 30 families were in the theater at Fort Hamilton.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other defendants were being arraigned on charges that include terrorism and murder, the first time in more than three years that they appeared in public. They could get the death penalty if convicted in the attacks that sent hijacked airliners slamming into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. The trial is probably at least a year away.
At Fort Meade, about 80 people watched the proceedings at a movie theater on the base, where “The Lorax” was being promoted on a sign outside.
One section of the theater for victims’ families was sectioned off with screens, and signs asked that other spectators respect their privacy.
Once the proceedings began, spectators in the public section laughed at times, including when a lawyer indicated Mohammed was likely not interested in using his headphones for a translator and again, briefly, when one of the defendants stood and the judge said that kind of behavior excited the guards. But the crowd was quiet when the man began to pray.
Six victims’ families chosen by lottery traveled to Guantanamo to see the arraignment in person.
Alan Linton of Frederick, Md., who lost his son Alan Jr., an investment banker, at the World Trade Center, said he and his wife put their names in the lottery for the Cuba trip but weren’t interested in watching a video feed of the arraignment.
“That’s just not the same as being there to me,” Linton said. “Going to Fort Meade, it’s kind of like watching television.”
Whether they watched or not, family members expressed frustration that it’s taken so long to bring the Sept. 11 conspirators to justice.
The administration of President Barack Obama dropped earlier military-commission charges against them when it decided in late 2009 to try them in federal court in New York. But Congress blocked the civilian trials amid opposition to bringing the defendants to U.S. soil, especially to a courthouse located just blocks from the trade center site.
“They have tons and tons of evidence and they’ve already admitted their guilt,” he said. “So I don’t know why the trial should be long.”
“I want to bear witness that in fact these people are brought to justice,” he said.
Associated Press writers Meghan Barr and Karen Matthews in New York, David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Md., and Jessica Gresko in Fort Meade, Md., contributed to this report.
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