Sept. 11 case back before Gitmo war crimes court

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Five Guantanamo prisoners charged in the Sept. 11 attacks returned before a military tribunal Monday, forgoing the protest that turned their last appearance into an unruly 13-hour spectacle.

But the apparent cooperation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has said he masterminded the worst terror attack on U.S. soil, and four codefendants did little to speed up proceedings that have stuck in a legal and political morass for years.

Prosecutors and lawyers spent hours arguing the most preliminary of issues, including whether the defendants have to be in court at all, with one attorney saying the hearings may dredge up bad memories of their harsh treatment in CIA detention.

“Our clients may believe that … I don’t want to be subjected to this procedure that transports me here, brings up memories, brings up emotions of things that happened to me,” said Jim Harrington, who represents Ramzi Binalshibh, accused of helping to provide support to the hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.

The five men sat quietly at the defense tables under the watchful eyes of military guards and several 9/11 family members at the U.S. base in Cuba. Mohammed, his beard dyed a rust color with henna, serenely read legal papers. Two others responded politely to the judge when asked.

All seemed to cooperate with their attorneys in a specially designed high-tech courtroom that allows the government to muffle sounds so spectators behind a glass wall cannot hear classified information.

The orderly scene was in stark contrast to their arraignment in May on charges that include terrorism and murder. At that session, one prisoner was briefly restrained for acting out, Binalshibh launched into an incoherent rant, the men generally ignored the judge and refused to use the court translation system, and two stood up to pray at one point.

Harrington told the court that the defendants may want to boycott future court sessions because they don’t recognize the U.S. government’s authority, or because their transportation from their high-security cells may remind them of the harsh treatment they endured when confined in the CIA’s overseas network of secret prisons before they came to Guantanamo in September 2006.

Prosecutors want the men to be required to attend court sessions. The military judge, Army Col. James Pohl, is weighing several options, including allowing them to skip months of pretrial sessions but requiring their presence at the trial. He had not ruled on the issue before the court adjourned Monday for lunch and a prayer break.

Pohl is presiding over a weeklong hearing to consider about two dozen preliminary legal issues. An eventual trial is likely at least a year away.

The focus of the week’s hearings include broad security rules for the prisoners, including measures to prevent the accused from publicly revealing what happened to them in the CIA prisons.

Prosecutors have asked the judge to approve what is known as a protective order intended to prevent the release of classified information during trial.

Lawyers for the defendants say the rules, as proposed, will hobble their defense. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a separate challenge, says the restrictions are overly broad and would improperly keep the public from hearing the men speak about their captivity.

“What we are challenging is the censorship of the defendant’s testimony based on their personal knowledge of the government’s torture and detention of them,” said Hina Shamsi, an ACLU attorney.

The order, which is also being challenged by a coalition of media organizations that includes The Associated Press, is overly broad because it would “classify the defendants own knowledge, thoughts and experience,” Shamsi said in an interview.

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