Long-delayed efforts to try the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four al-Qaeda co-defendants finally got under way on Monday with a pre-trial hearing at Guantanamo.
Eleven years after the attacks and nine-and-a-half years since his capture in Pakistan, Mohammed sat on a court bench wearing a white turban, his beard dyed with henna, as victims’ family members looked on from behind a glass screen.
Mohammed is accused of orchestrating the hijacked airliner plot that left 2,976 people dead, while his alleged al-Qaeda accomplices are charged with providing funding and other support for those who crashed the planes.
All five defendants face the death penalty if convicted, but their trial by military tribunal at the US naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, is not expected to start for at least another year.
“I don’t think there’s any justice in this court,” the 47-year-old Mohammed said in Arabic when asked by Judge James Pohl if he understood his rights.
During the five-day pre-trial hearing, the defense is seeking to prevent US President Barack Obama’s administration from arguing that the treatment and alleged torture of the defendants during interrogations in secret CIA prisons before being sent to Guantanamo in 2006 is classified for national security.
Media organizations and rights groups are demanding that the judge guarantee the transparency of proceedings amid fears that some sessions will be conducted in secret.
The American Civil Liberties Union and media groups petitioning the court are protesting a 40-second audio delay for journalists and others following the proceedings from behind the soundproof glass.
They say the delay, which allows a military censor to blur statements whose content is deemed a threat to national security, violates speech and press freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
Initially set for June, the pre-trial hearing has been delayed on several occasions.
Pohl turned down a recent request for a further delay after rat excrement and mold was discovered in the offices of defense lawyers.
Wearing a hijab out of respect for her Yemeni client Walid bin Attash, defense attorney Cheryl Bormann brought up the issue again on Monday, saying the condition of the workspace “makes the staff sick.”
Pohl did rule that effective from yesterday, the defendants can leave the courtroom during the hearings or opt not to attend at all.
Michael Schwartz, the military defense attorney for bin Attash, tried to argue that a discussion of torture was necessary to decide that issue, saying hauling them into court would subject them to emotional strain, but Pohl shut down his line of reasoning as “irrelevant.”
When Pohl tried to make the defendants understand the proceedings would go on without them, even if somehow they managed to escape from the US detention facility, Aziz Ali retorted: “I’ll make sure to leave some notes.”
Mohammed, a Kuwaiti-born Pakistani who attended university in the US, was regarded as one of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s most trusted and intelligent lieutenants.
In addition to felling the Twin Towers, the trained engineer claims to have personally beheaded US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 with his “blessed right hand” and to have helped in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people.