GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — They knelt in prayer, ignored the judge and wouldn’t listen to Arabic translations as they confronted nearly 3,000 counts of murder. The self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and four co-defendants defiantly disrupted an arraignment that ended late Saturday in the opening act of the long-stalled effort to prosecute them in a military court.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted architect of the attacks that sent hijacked jetliners into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the four men accused of aiding the 9/11 conspiracy put off entering pleas until a later date. Another hearing was set for June 12.
It wasn’t until more than seven hours into the disrupted and prolonged hearing that prosecutors at the U.S. military base in Cuba even began reading the charges against the men, including 2,976 counts of murder and terrorism that carry the death penalty.
Earlier Saturday, Mohammed cast off his earphones providing Arabic translations of the proceeding and refused to answer Army Col. James Pohl’s questions or acknowledge he understood them. All five men refused to participate in the hearing; two passed around a copy of The Economist magazine and leafed through the articles.
Walid bin Attash was confined to a restraint chair when he came into court, released only after he promised to behave.
Ramzi Binalshibh began praying alongside his defense table, followed by Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, in the middle of the hearing; Binalshibh then launched into a tirade in which he compared a prison official to the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and declared that he was in danger.
“Maybe they will kill me and say I committed suicide,” he said in a mix of Arabic and broken English.
The detainees’ lawyers spent hours questioning the judge 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, in which hijackers steered four commercial jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a western Pennsylvania field.
The defendants’ behavior outraged 9/11 family members watching on closed-circuit video feeds around the United States at East Coast military bases. One viewer shouted, “C’mon, are you kidding me?” at the Fort Hamilton base in Brooklyn.
“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.
A handful of people who lost family members in the attacks and were selected by a lottery to attend the proceedings watched in the courtroom.
The Obama administration renewed plans to try the men at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay after a bid to try the men in New York City blocks from the trade center site faced political opposition. It adopted new rules with Congress that forbade testimony obtained through torture or cruel treatment, and officials now say that defendants could be tried as fairly here as in a civilian court.
Human rights groups and defense lawyers said the secrecy of Guantanamo and the military commissions, or tribunals, will make it impossible to defend them. They argued the U.S. kept the case out of civilian court to prevent disclosure of the treatment of prisoners like Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times.
Nevin said he believed Mohammed was not responding because he believes the tribunal is unfair. Jim Harrington, representing Binalshibh, said his client would not respond to questions “without addressing the issues of confinement.”
Cheryl Bormann, a civilian attorney for bin Attash, appeared in a conservative Islamic outfit that left only her face uncovered and she asked the court to order other women present to wear “appropriate” clothing so that defendants do not have to avert their eyes “for fear of committing a sin under their faith.”
Pohl warned he would not permit defendants to block the hearing and would continue without his participation.
“One cannot choose not to participate and frustrate the normal course of business,” Pohl said.
Pohl brought translators into the courtroom to interpret the proceedings live once the men refused to use earpieces attempted to stick to the standard script for tribunals, asking the defendants if they understood their rights to counsel and would accept the attorneys appointed for them.
The men were silent.
In the past, during the failed first effort to prosecute them at the U.S. base in Cuba, Mohammed has mocked the tribunal and said he and his co-defendants would plead guilty and welcome execution. But there were signs that at least some of the defense teams were preparing for a lengthy fight, planning challenges of the military tribunals and the secrecy that shrouds the case.
Defendants typically do not enter a plea during their arraignment but are offered the chance to do so.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced in 2009 that Mohammed and his co-defendants would be tried blocks from the site of the destroyed trade center in downtown Manhattan, but the plan was shelved after New York officials cited huge costs to secure the neighborhood and family opposition to trying the suspects in the U.S.
Congress then blocked the transfer of any prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S., forcing the Obama administration to refile the charges under a reformed military commission system.
Mohammed, a Pakistani citizen who grew up in Kuwait and attended college in Greensboro, N.C., has admitted to military authorities that he was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks “from A to Z,” as well as about 30 other plots, and that he personally killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Mohammed was captured in 2003 in Pakistan.
Binalshibh was allegedly chosen to be a hijacker but couldn’t get a U.S. visa and ended up providing assistance such as finding flight schools. Bin Attash, also from Yemen, allegedly ran an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan and researched flight simulators and timetables. Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi is a Saudi accused of helping the hijackers with money, Western clothing, traveler’s checks and credit cards. Al-Aziz Ali, a Pakistani national and nephew of Mohammed, allegedly provided money to the hijackers.