9/11 Plotters Defer Pleas at Guantanamo Bay Arraignment

AP Photo

FORT MEADE, Md. -The five men charged with plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks deferred enterring pleas at their arraignment today on 2,976 counts of murder for each of the 9/11 victims, bringing to a close what was often a chaotic court appearance.

The five men face  the death penalty if they are convicted by the military tribunal trying their case.

The proceedings in a courtroom at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba got off to a rocky start as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., defiantly refused to respond to questions posed to him by Col. James Pohl, who is presiding over the case.

His fellow defendants Ramzi Binalshibh, Walid bin Attash, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa al Hawsawi continued with the protest by refusing to respond to any of the questions posed by Pohl.

"Accused refuses to answer," Pohl said repeatedly after he asked procedural questions of each of the defendants, attempting to determine whether they were comfortable with their legal counsel.  Without any responses, Pohl approved their current military and civilian counsels by default.

Pohl's review of the qualifications of the defense counsels in representing their clients was interrupted when Binalshibh suddenly sprang to his feet and began speaking loudly in English.

He began to compare the commander at Guantanamo to former Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi saying "we have Moammar Gadhafi in Guantanamo here."  He suggested that "maybe they are going to kill us and say that we are committing suicide."

Pohl told him he was speaking out of turn and would get a chance to say something later.  Binalshibh replied loudly, "Maybe you are not going to see me any more. … It's not about my choice. "

After nearly nine and a half hours of procedural questions, Pohl finally asked the five defendants if they would enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.  Through their attorneys, each of the defendants said they would defer entering a plea.

Earlier, when each defendant refused to answer Pohl's questions, the judge said he would waive the requirement that a non-response be entered as a not guilty plea.

Mohammed has admitted to having conceived the attacks, the others are charged with having facilitated the attacks financially and logistically.

The  court appearance was the first time in three years that the five 9/11 alleged co-conspirators had been seen in public.   Wearing their white prison uniforms, most of the defendants wore white skullcaps. Mohammed wore a white turban he had apparently fashioned himself.

Mohammed's long beard appeared to be brown, not gray as had been seen in earlier photographs.  Reporters at Guantanamo were later told that Mohammed had used henna to color his beard, though it remained unclear how he had gotten access to the dye.

The proceedings began with Pohl quickly noting that it appeared that some, if not all, of the defendants were not wearing the earphones that would provide them with simultaneous Arabic translation.

Though his client speaks English, Mohammed's civilian attorney, David Nevin, told Pohl he was not sure if his client would choose to participate at the arraignment given concerns he had about the process.  He said he would not participate "without addressing the issues of confinement."

"One cannot choose not to participate and frustrate the normal course of business," Pohl told the defendants .

Pohl eventually had to bring Arabic interpreters into the courtroom who would translate over a speaker system to ensure that the defendants could understand the proceedings, given that they were not wearing their earphones.

Pohl noted that bin Attash was sitting in restraints at his chair.  After a lengthy back and forth, his military attorney was finally able to provide Pohl with enough reassurance that he would behave in court, and Pohl finally ordered the restraints removed.

The proceedings  also came to a halt when Binalshibh suddenly stood up to go into his daily prayers.   The courtroom fell completely silent as he knelt and stood several times in Muslim prayer.  Pohl later ordered two long breaks in the proceedings to accommodate their required prayer times.

The defendants' behavior was in stark contrast to their 2008 arraignment when the co- conspirators used the opportunity to talk to each other in court.  That was apparently the first time they had seen each other since the start of their detentions.

During that arraignment Mohammed had boasted of planning the attacks and said he hoped the legal proceedings would lead to his becoming a martyr.

That case was dismissed  in 2009 after President Obama suspended the military commissions process in preparation for closing the detention center at Guantanamo.

Lengthy Legal Proceeding

The arraignment is the start of what is expected to be a lengthy legal proceeding as Pohl agreed to a request by four of the five defense teams to begin the trial on May 5, 2013, a year from today.   Al Hawsawi has until May 12 to decide whether he will agree to that date or choose to start the trial on Aug. 1, 2012, as prosecutors had originally requested.

Observing today's legal proceedings behind a  glass window in the rear of the courtroom were six family members of victims killed in the 9/11 attacks as well as a small number of journalists.

The family members had been chosen by lottery among the 250 family members who had applied to watch the proceedings in person.

The Pentagon set up closed circuit viewing locations at various military bases along the East Coast for family members who could not attend in person.

The viewing locations were at Fort Hamilton, N.Y.; Fort Devens, Mass.; Fort Meade, Md.; and Joint Base Mcguire-Dix-Lakehurst in N.J.  Attendance by family members at each location was sparse except for Fort Hamilton where an estimate 42 family members and first responders  watched the arraignment.

A separate viewing location for journalists was set up at Fort Meade.

The five 9/11 plotters were all originally held in the CIA's secret prisons and were transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006.

During their CIA detentions they were subject to controversial "enhanced interrogation techniques."  The revised military commission process restricts the use of testimony gathered from coerced confessions.

On Friday, Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor in the case,  had told reporters "This is a system worthy of the nation's confidence."

The day ended with the lengthy reading of the 87 pages of murder charges against the defendants. The reading of the charges was requested by three of the defendants.

The next step in the case will be a hearing on June 12 when Pohl is expected to rule on motions filed by the defense teams.

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