GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — Five Guantanamo Bay prisoners accused of helping orchestrate the Sept. 11 terror attack returned to court Monday as arguments resumed over preparations for a trial that remains distant.
It was the first time the five prisoners had been in court since February and they sat calmly through a morning’s worth of dense legalistic testimony, with none of the outbursts that characterized previous sessions. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed terrorist mastermind and lead defendant, wore a camouflage jacket and white turban, his bushy gray beard dyed reddish-orange.
In the audience, behind panels of glass that allow the government to cut off sound in case classified information is inadvertently uttered, were two retired New York firefighters injured while responding to the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, as well as relatives of other victims. The spectators were chosen by lottery to view the proceedings at the U.S. base in Cuba. Several said they were eager to see it move along.
“They are obviously guilty, I think they have already admitted it, and the trial should happen as quickly as possible,” said Joe Torrillo, one of the two retired firefighters.
Mohammed has told the military that he was involved in a long list of terrorist plots, including the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and has said in court that he was proud of his role in the Sept. 11 plot. The men have not yet entered pleas and defense lawyers say the men were tortured in CIA custody.
In the start of what is scheduled to be five days of hearings on pretrial motions, the defense questioned retired Navy Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, the Pentagon legal official who oversaw the military tribunals until his term expired in March. The lawyers asked about rules that he approved governing attorney-client interactions in the case.
Defense lawyers called MacDonald in part to challenge the rules, which they say interfere with their ability to represent their clients, who are held under ultra-secure conditions in a section of Guantanamo reserved for men deemed by the Pentagon to be “high-value detainees.”
Defense teams have argued that MacDonald may have been improperly swayed in approving the charges in the case in April 2012 and acted too quickly, not giving the lawyers enough time to prepare a response to the prosecution’s filing. He testified by video link from Washington state for the entire day and was scheduled to resume testifying Tuesday.
In the final minutes of Monday’s session, the lawyer for defendant Ramzi Binalshibh asked that the defendant be allowed to address the court. The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, denied the request.
Pohl is hearing motions this week on a long list of procedural motions, including whether the defendants can be excluded from closed pretrial sessions that deal with classified material and whether the defense can gain access to confidential reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The government has asked for a trial in late 2014, though it’s likely to be later.
Mohammed and his four co-defendants each face charges that include terrorism and nearly 3,000 counts of murder for their alleged roles planning and aiding the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the United States. They could get the death penalty if convicted.