GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — The United States has finally begun prosecuting five prisoners here charged in the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people; but the trial will not be starting anytime soon, and both sides said Sunday that the case could continue for years.
Defense lawyer James Connell said a tentative trial date of May 2013 is a “placeholder” until a true date can be set for the trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the attacks, and his four co-defendants.
“It’s going to take time,” said the chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, who said he expects to battle a barrage of defense motions before the case goes to trial.
“I am getting ready for hundreds of motions because we want them to shoot everything they can shoot at us,” he said in the wake of Saturday’s arraignment, which dragged on for 13 hours due to stalling tactics by the defendants.
“Everyone is frustrated by the delay,” Gen. Martins said. He noted that the civilian trial of convicted Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui took four years, and he pleaded guilty in 2006 before being sentenced to life in prison.
On Saturday, Mohammed and his co-defendants refused to respond to the judge or use the court’s translation system, and demanded a lengthy reading of the charges, tactics that Mr. Connell called “peaceful resistance to an unjust system.”
The arraignment, Mr. Connell said, “demonstrates that this will be a long, hard-fought but peaceful struggle against secrecy, torture and the misguided institution of the military commissions.”
The defendants’ actions outraged relatives of the victims.
“They’re engaging in jihad in a courtroom,” said Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles, was the pilot of the plane that flew into the Pentagon. She watched the proceeding from Brooklyn on one of the closed-circuit video feeds around the United States.
Several of those who lost family members in the attacks were selected by a lottery and flown to watch the proceedings at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, where Mohammed and his co-defendants put off their pleas until a later date.
They face 2,976 counts of murder and terrorism in the 2001 attacks that sent hijacked jetliners into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The charges carry the death penalty.
The detainees’ lawyers spent hours questioning the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, about his qualifications to hear the case and suggested their clients were being mistreated at the hearing, in a strategy that could pave the way for future appeals.
Mohammed was subjected to a strip search and “inflammatory and unnecessary” treatment before court, said his attorney, David Nevin.
It was the defendants’ first appearance in more than three years after stalled efforts to try them for the terror attacks.
The Obama administration renewed plans to try the men at Guantanamo Bay after a bid to try the men in New York City blocks from the trade center site hit political opposition. Officials adopted new rules with Congress that forbade testimony obtained through torture or cruel treatment, and they now say that defendants could be tried as fairly here as in a civilian court.