The hearing is the first step toward trying the men for murder, conspiracy and a host of other charges. The trials, which are being compared to the Nuremburg trials after World War II, will take place before military commissions created specifically for 9/11 terror suspects.
The system of military commissions has been mired for years in controversy, legal challenges and setbacks. Critics, including some military lawyers, say the system is unfair, relying on secret or coerced evidence, and is rigged to get convictions. They question whether it ever will get off the ground, with an election and new administration on the horizon.
"All Americans, including 9/11 victims, deserve better than a system that allows confessions extracted by torture, secret evidence that a defendant cannot rebut and hearsay," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union who was present at the arraignment. "Only a fair and just process can guarantee a legitimate outcome. This is too important to get wrong."
ACLU's statement released today also made reference to the fact that after being held separately for years, today the detainees were "allowed to interact with the obvious goal of allowing them to present a unified rejection of legal representation."
The government insists the trials will be fair and open and will take place as scheduled. Lawyers say the arraignment Thursday marks a key turning point, not only in showing the commissions are up and running for the so-called "worst of the worst" but for the suspects themselves.
"Each one of them is innocent today, innocent until proven guilty," said Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the top legal adviser at Guantanamo.
Appearing in the courtroom with Mohammed were the four other top al Qaeda suspects -- Walid Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi -- who are believed to have been directly involved in either the planning, training or financing of Sept. 11.
Hartmann said he expects defense to mount an aggressive defense.
"It will be a battle royale in the courtroom. It will be what a trial is supposed to be, a very aggressive approach from the prosecution and the defense, bringing the matters of law to the judge, bringing the matters of fact to the jury, to allow them to decide," Hartmann said. "It will be an aggressive, intense experience, as a trial is supposed to be, to bring out the truth."
The sharpest objections are expected over the use of aggressive interrogation techniques the CIA used against the suspects, including waterboarding Mohammed.
"The [commissions] allow convictions based on secret evidence, evidence obtained by coercion or torture," said David Remes, a lawyer who is representing another suspect at Guantanamo.
President Bush has said the government will not use evidence obtained by torture. But Hartmann and others have refused to say whether that includes waterboarding. Hartmann said those questions will be for the judge to decide.