GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - The arraignment of five Guantanamo prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 attacks got off to a rocky start on Saturday when the defendants removed their earphones and refused to listen to a translation of the judge’s questions.
Star defendant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the September 11 hijacked plane attacks, refused to respond to the judge’s questions about whether he was satisfied with his U.S. military and civilian lawyers.
“I believe Mr. Mohammed will decline to address the court. I believe he’s deeply concerned about the fairness of the proceeding,” said his civilian lawyer, David Nevin.
Mohammed looked haggard and his full, scraggly beard had a reddish tinge. He wore a round white turban and white tunic.
Defendant Ramzi Binalshibh stood up, then knelt on the courtroom floor and prayed as a row of burly guards in camouflage uniforms kept a close watch but did not interfere.
Defendant Walid bin Attash was tightly strapped into a restraining chair after refusing to come to court voluntarily. The judge freed him after he promised to behave inside the courtroom.
When all the defendants refused to wear the earphones that allowed them to listen to the English-Arabic translations of the judge’s questions, the judge recessed the hearing briefly and then resumed it with an interpreter providing a translation that was audible to the whole court.
Mohammed and his co-defendants, who could all be subjected to the death penalty, face seven charges stemming from the 2001 attacks that killed 2,976 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and propelled the United States into a deadly, costly and ongoing global war against al Qaeda and its supporters.
The defendants last appeared in court in December 2008 when Mohammed tried to confess and plead guilty. They are accused of conspiring with al Qaeda, attacking civilians and civilian targets, murder in violation of the laws of war, destruction of property, hijacking and terrorism.
Cheryl Borman, a civilian attorney for bin Attash, wore a black hijab and long black robe and told the court that the treatment of her client at Guantanamo had interfered with his ability to participate in the proceedings.
“These men have been mistreated,” Borman said.
The judge said that until the question of the men’s legal representation was settled, the attorneys had no standing to make motions concerning the defendants’ treatment. But the defendants still refused to answer the judge’s questions.
Over and over, as he questioned each defendant, the judge noted for the record, “The accused refuses to answer.” One by one, he ruled that the defendants would be represented by the lawyers assigned to them. In addition to their military lawyers, each has a civilian attorney with experience in death penalty cases.
A closed-circuit TV feed of the court proceedings, which was also being relayed to seven viewing sites at military bases in the United States for journalists and family members of victims, was interrupted when the defense attorneys tried to discuss the way the defendants had been treated and used the word torture.
“The reason that he’s not putting the earphones in his ears has to do with the torture that was imposed upon him,” Nevin said of Mohammed.
The judge grew testy as the defense lawyers repeatedly tried to raise the torture issue and moved to turn the focus back to the question of whether the defendants were satisfied with their attorneys.
“We’ll get to it when I said we’ll get to it,” the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, snapped at one of the defense lawyers. “I told you, I‘m going to do it when we get to it.”
All five defendants were held for more than three years in secret CIA prisons before being sent to Guantanamo in 2006, and all have said they were tortured there. The CIA said Mohammed alone was waterboarded 183 times.
A small group of people whose relatives died in the attacks were chosen by lottery to travel to the remote Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba to watch the hearing from behind a glass wall in the spectators’ gallery.
Cliff Russell, whose firefighter brother Stephen Russell, 40, was killed at the World Trade Center, said he was comfortable with the death penalty for the defendants and wished them “the worst death possible.”
“I think I have all the evidence I need,” said Russell, who helped recover the remains of 23 people from the ashes and rubble of the Trade Center. “I tasted death, literally.”
He said the taste lingered in his throat and that he hoped that the trial “would be the process that gets rid of that for me.”
Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Beech