First day at Guantanamo courthouse a big mess

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — First, the sound went out in the U.S. military’s new war-crimes courthouse. Then the lights went dark. To top it off, the defendant announced he was boycotting the proceedings.

By anyone’s account, Wednesday’s debut of the new facility where the Pentagon hopes to try the alleged Sept. 11 terrorists did not go smoothly. Even the presiding judge, Army Col. Peter Brownback, got frustrated.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with the AV in this place,” Brownback snapped after audiovisual equipment intermittently cut out as an interpreter translated the words of Ali Hamza Ahmad Sulayman al-Bahlul.

Wednesday’s hearing marked the opening of the $12 million Expeditionary Legal Complex. Laid out on the tarmac of an unused airfield, it features a windowless, corrugated-metal courthouse and nearly 100 tents where lawyers and journalists sleep. Previous hearings were conducted in the air-traffic control terminal nearby.

The temporary nature of the new facility reflects the uncertain future of America’s first war-crimes trials since World War II. The Pentagon initially wanted a permanent, three-courtroom structure at a cost of $125 million, but those plans were scaled back.

The Bush administration plans to prosecute dozens of terror suspects at the military base in southeast Cuba, including men accused of planning the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But the courthouse and tents can be easily dismantled if Bush’s successor agrees with critics who condemn the military’s detention of foreign “enemy combatants” outside the reach of traditional U.S. courts.

On Wednesday, a technical problem initially kept journalists in a spectators’ gallery from hearing courtroom sound — the room is soundproof so speakers can be turned off when classified evidence is presented. And in a press room not far from the courthouse, a video feed froze.

Later, sound carrying the English translation faded in and out, forcing journalists watching the television to rely on an Arabic-speaking colleague to tell them what al-Bahlul was saying.

The Yemeni detainee said he was boycotting the trial, that he does not recognize the military court and that the prosecution of Muslims at Guantanamo will only further enrage America’s enemies.

A few minutes later the courthouse was plunged into darkness.

The U.S. alleges al-Bahlul was a recruiter and personal secretary for Osama bin Laden who armed himself with an explosives belt, rifle and grenades to prevent the terrorist leader’s capture.

He allegedly created a propaganda video glorifying al-Qaida’s October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen that killed 17 American sailors.

He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted on charges of conspiracy, solicitation to commit murder and providing material support for terrorism.

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