GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – There were no rants this time, no ignoring the judge or getting out of their seats to pray – just one scornful remark from the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks as a weeklong pretrial hearing began for five Guantanamo Bay detainees.
It was a sharply different atmosphere as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants returned to court at the U.S. base in Cuba for the first time since their arraignment in May, when their concerted effort to disrupt the proceedings turned what was supposed to be a brief hearing into an unruly, 13-hour spectacle.
This time, the defendants sat quietly, cooperated with their attorneys and responded to the judge when asked.
And they were awarded a small victory: The judge granted a defense request to allow the five men to skip the rest of this week’s hearing if they choose, rather than risk being forced out of their cells and into the court by military guards.
Asked whether he understood the implications of not attending court while hearings go on without him, Mohammed made his only statement of the day: Yes, but I don’t think there is any justice in this court.
The issue was only one of a handful to be resolved Monday in a weeklong hearing on about two dozen motions before the formal trial, which is at least a year away.
Lawyers for two of the defendants said the threat to forcibly remove them from their cells and bring them to court is traumatic for men who were subjected to harsh interrogations that they say amounted to torture while in CIA custody, before going to Guantanamo in September 2006.
Our clients may believe that ... I don’t want to be subjected to this procedure that transports me here, brings up memories, brings up emotions of things that happened to me, said Jim Harrington, who represents Ramzi Binalshibh, accused of helping to provide support to the hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001.
Harrington’s statement elicited groans from a small group of family members of Sept. 11 victims who were chosen by lottery to come to Guantanamo to view the proceedings.
Prosecutors wanted the men to be required to attend court sessions. The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, finally ruled that Mohammed and his codefendants would not be forced to attend the hearings. He said he may require them to attend future pretrial sessions and said they would have to be present for their trial.
His questioning of the defendants brought a rare light moment to what is considered of the most significant terrorism prosecutions in U.S. history.
The judge told the men that the trial would go on without them if they were to somehow escape from U.S. custody, drawing a smile of disbelief from Binalshibh. I’m escaping from custody? he said in English.
The same question prompted some sarcasm from Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, a Pakistani citizen accused of funneling money to the hijackers. I’ll make sure to leave some notes, he said in English.
Mohammed, dressed in a white headdress and black vest, his bushy beard dyed a rusty orange with henna, sat serenely reading legal papers or following the procedures in a specially designed high-tech courtroom that allows the government to muffle sounds so spectators behind a glass wall cannot hear classified information.