9/11 Hearing Disrupted, Delayed And Finally Deferred

May 5, 2012
Originally published on May 7, 2012 6:53 am

The alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four other men charged with helping launch those attacks ended their first day in a military commission arraignment by saying they would wait to enter their pleas.

The day was contentious. The men refused to answer routine questions from Judge James Pohl, refused to participate in the proceedings, and even refused to listen to the simultaneous Arabic translation of what was going on all around them.

Courtroom No. 2 at the U.S. naval base was packed. Mohammed, also known as KSM, read the Quran and magazines as defense and the judge sparred for hours. He was dressed in a white robe, the white turban of a mullah and a long beard dyed red with henna.

The men tried with him took cues from KSM, refusing to acknowledge the judge or the proceedings. They seemed to have good relationships with their attorneys, so the passive resistance seemed to be a strategy on which the attorneys and their clients had agreed.

"I believe Mr. Mohammed will decline to address the court. I believe he is deeply concerned about the fairness of the proceeding," Defense Attorney David Nevin told the judge.

Arraignments in federal courts generally end with a plea. It is different in military commissions. If the men had entered pleas, they would have sped to trial. There is a rule in military commissions that requires a trial to start 120 days after arraignment. The government suggested an August 2012 start date. The defense asked for a year's delay.

The 9/11 case has become a test of the military commissions system and the specter of harsh interrogation tactics has cast a pall across the proceedings. Military prosecutors say they don't need evidence derived from those techniques to make their case. The defense says the harsh treatment of their clients is part and parcel of the case and can't be stripped out.

"How our clients were treated is reflected in their behavior today," defense attorneys said time and again as their clients glowered in the courtroom.

The five men are facing eight charges, including conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, murder and hijacking, as well as intentional attacks on civilians and civilian property. If convicted, all five face the death penalty.

Dramatic Entrances

The first of the Sept. 11 defendants to enter the courtroom was Ramzi bin al-Shibh. He allegedly wanted to come to the U.S. in 2001, and be one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, but he couldn't get a visa. Prosecutors say he took another job instead, as a terrorist financier.

Bin al-Shibh allegedly served as a Hamburg-based deputy to KSM, transferring money to some of the hijackers and even tried to enroll in flight school with the other hijackers. He came into the courtroom wearing the traditional Muslim shalwar chemise and a white skullcap. He sat down, stroked his beard, opened a Quran and began to pray.

The entrances of the other defendants sent similar subtle messages. Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, also known as Ammar al-Baluchi and KSM's nephew, came in wearing biker sunglasses.

Walid bin Attash, a 33-year-old Yemeni, followed, but in a different way: he was, literally, tied to a chair on wheels. Officials say he struggled with guards outside the courtroom and they had to restrain him to get him to appear. His arms were tied down so a guard had to carefully put Attash's glasses on his nose. Attash lost a leg in Afghanistan; his prosthetic arrived to the courtroom about five minutes after he did. He's been charged with being the number two in the so-called "Plane Operation."

The last defendant to appear was the most dramatic: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has said that he masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks "from A to Z," shuffled into the courtroom with a phalanx of guards. His co-defendants watched him carefully as he sat down. He was wearing white and had hennaed his long beard to a bright red. He was wearing glasses and looked down the line of the defense tables making eye contact with each man. It became clear, just minutes later, that they had a plan.

When KSM declined to answer Pohl's questions, the other defendants followed suit. When he prayed, they prayed. He read the Quran, they picked up the book too. At one point, two of the men passed around a recent issue of The Economist. It was as if the legal battle being waged in the room had little to do with them.

The Issue Of Torture

To hear the defense attorneys tell it, the biggest issue in the case is not whether their clients committed the Sept. 11 attacks, but rather how they were treated when in U.S. custody. The CIA has admitted to waterboarding two of the defendants — KSM and Ramzi bin al-Shibh — and that was the elephant in the room all day.

The defense attorneys said that before the proceeding even started, torture need to be addressed. Their clients, they said, were boycotting the proceedings and acting out because of the way they had been treated in the past.

They claimed that their clients weren't wearing headphones for translation because it reminded them of the torture they suffered. One of the techniques used in enhanced interrogation is to put headphones on a prisoner and play loud music. The lawyers suggested the translation coming through the earphones reminded their clients of that.

The defense strategy suggests that the Sept. 11 trial, which has been almost a decade in the making, is going to be a battle. The defense has already filed a motion that argues that the case wasn't properly brought to the military commissions. Should they win that motion, the trial of KSM and the alleged Sept. 11 hijackers would go back to square one.

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We head now to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where five men charged in the planning of the September 11th attacks were arranged today. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and four others were seen publicly for the first time in three years. The proceedings gave a first look at the strategy of the defense.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston was in the courtroom and joins us now from Guantanamo. Dina, tell us what happened in the courtroom there today.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, it was a little chaotic. You know, there's five men on trial, so the courtroom is really full. It's full of their lawyers. It's full of advisers. And it's full of them. And they brought in a man named Ramzi bin al-Shibh first. He allegedly wanted to come to the U.S. and be one of the 9/11 hijackers, but he couldn't get a visa. So the prosecution says he helped get money for the hijackers to finance the plot. Anyway, he's the one who walked in first, and he was wearing traditional Muslim clothes and a white skullcap. And he came in, and he immediately opened a Quran and started to pray.

RAZ: And then they brought in the defendants one by one.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They did. I mean, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, you know, sort of the marquee name here, the so-called mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, he came in last. And you could see that all the defendants were watching him really carefully as the guards led him to the front of the courtroom. And what was interesting is as the proceedings went on, you could tell that they were taking cues from him.

For example, he decided not to answer any of the questions the judge was asking him, not even to acknowledge the judge. And, for example, he refused to put on headphones giving him an Arabic translation, and then all the other defendants did exactly the same thing. And it was really remarkable to watch them fall into line behind him.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. Dina, one of the big questions, of course, in this case is the way detainees were treated. The CIA has admitted to waterboarding two of the defendants. Did that come up at all today?

TEMPLE-RASTON: In fact, it was the elephant in the room. The defense attorneys tried to bring up torture at almost every turn. They said their clients weren't wearing those headphones with the Arabic translation because it reminded them of the torture. And they used that word. They used the word torture. And they said they had experienced it in custody.

And one of the techniques used in an enhanced interrogation is to put headphones on a prisoner and play music really loud, and the lawyer said that the translation coming through the earphones had reminded their clients of that.

RAZ: Dina, this was an arraignment, but no pleas of guilt or innocence.

TEMPLE-RASTON: No. I mean, this is one of the differences between the federal courts and the military commissions. Usually, an arraignment is a process of getting a plea, guilty or not guilty. In the military commissions, if someone enters a plea at an arraignment, then there's a deadline to get them to the sentencing phase. Essentially, the door closes on the ability to file motions or, for example, say the military commissions are unfair.

Because the military commission system is so new, there's like a huge number of motions. And if they were to go right to a guilty plea now, they wouldn't be able to sort of register their reservations about the case.

RAZ: And so, Dina, what comes next?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this is going to be a long drawn-out process. And the defense is trying to say that the case wasn't properly brought to the military commissions. And if they win that motion, then everything would start all over again. In other words, going forward, there are going to be lots of procedural issues before we ever get to the traditional trial stuff involving evidence or pleas or witnesses.

And the defendants have said in the past that they want to die as martyrs, and this is a death penalty case. But from what we saw today, it doesn't look like they're just going to plead guilty and hurry up the inevitable. They're going to make the government prove their case, try to talk about torture at the hands of the U.S. and then draw that out as long as they can.

RAZ: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, covering the arraignment of the five men charged in the planning of the September 11th attacks. Dina, thanks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.