(Reuters) - When accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed grumbled to the U.S. military war tribunal he couldn't get paper or file legal motions with the court, he was told to put his complaints in legal papers and file them with the court.
When he asked for documents to be translated into Arabic so he could read them, he was told there was no requirement for the U.S. military commissions that will try his death penalty case to do that. But the judge said he would think about it.
Lawyers for the five men accused of plotting the hijacked airliner attacks on the United States say the complaints brought last week before the war court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, exemplify the trouble the men face getting a fair trial before the first U.S. military tribunals since World War Two.
"There is a big problem with the system," Mohammed, the Pakistani who has allegedly admitted to planning the Sept. 11 attacks from start to finish, told the court.
Mohammed and four others, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa al-Hawsawi, face conspiracy and murder charges in the 2001 attacks that triggered the Bush administration's global war on terrorism.
From simple logistics like paper, computers and law libraries to strict secrecy rules that will prevent the five from seeing classified evidence before trial, the defendants and their lawyers say the tribunals are not giving the men a fair chance in a case that could lead to their executions.
"You have from the sublime to the ridiculous. You have from the mundane to the serious and significant," said David Nevin, a defense lawyer assigned to Mohammed.
Ali asked for access to a computer and a law library. Mohammed asked for paper to write on and said he had filed a motion that the judge still hadn't received two days later.
The men are held at an isolated, maximum-security prison camp in southeastern Cuba that has been condemned by human and legal rights advocates. Lawyers say it is difficult to even arrange to talk to the men.
Letter to the Judge
Military officials have offered no details about how they will do something as simple as getting a letter from a prisoner to the judge, despite knowing since 2006, when the Military Commissions Act gave them the right, that Guantanamo detainees could be defending themselves.
"We are deep into that process," said Army Col. Lawrence Morris, the chief prosecutor. "We are in the process of working through the details of how to accommodate their interest in having access to information."
The secrecy rules could prove the toughest challenge to the suspects.
Three of the five have been given permission to act as their own lawyers, despite stern warnings from the judge that it was a "bad idea." They won't be able to travel to find witnesses or investigate.
The terrorism suspects can't get security clearance to read classified material, so they won't be able to pore over documents that might offer exculpatory evidence, and the prosecution is under no obligation to hand them that evidence, or present it in court, defense lawyers say.
They can have "stand-by" lawyers with security clearance to help them. But the lawyers won't be able to discuss secret material with the accused.
Most of the words uttered or written by the five "high-value" suspects are considered classified, a situation the lawyers call completely unworkable. And even the lawyers with security clearance can only discuss top secret material in a secure facility, so designated by the government.
"When we leave the room and we're not with him (Mohammed) any more, we can't turn to each other and say 'What do you think of what he just said?"' said Nevin, who has called the commission process "very, very unfair."
"And at the end of this, the government's desire is to execute Mr. Mohammed," said Capt. Prescott Prince, another of Mohammed's legal advisers. "I find that just insane."
With all the roadblocks, why have the men decided to defend themselves? It could be because prosecutors and some defendants are working toward the same goal -- executions.
Maj. Jon Jackson, who represents Hawsawi, noted that Mohammed and bin Attash both said at their first court hearing that they wanted to be executed as soon as possible.
"Lawyers get in the way of moving from where they are now to their ultimate goal, to martyr themselves," he said. (Editing by Tom Brown and Philip Barbara) REUTERS@ Reut13:00 07-13-0807-13-2008 17:00UTC / (RE.ny-reu.08a.am-nyny-inwcp01) /