A defiant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed chanted holy verses in Arabic, railed against President George W. Bush for his "crusader" wars and declared his wish to become a "martyr" during a raucous military tribunal hearing convened today to begin the process of trying him as the mastermind of the September 11 terror attacks.
"It's an inquisition, not a trial!" proclaimed Mohammed in a tense, tightly guarded courtroom. "We under five years were under torture. We don't have rights to anything. After all this torturing, they transfer us to inquisitionland in Guantánamo."
The proceedings here offered the first public glimpse of the 43-year-old whom U.S. officials accuse of conceiving and executing the most deadly crime in American history. But the contentious start this morning only underscored the difficulties the Pentagon is expected to encounter in putting Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators on trial—a case that has become a top priority for the Bush administration.
The proceeding today is technically only an arraignment—a formal reading of the charges against the five co-defendants. But it comes amid intense controversy over the legitimacy and fairness of the military tribunal system.
If anything, Mohammed's demeanor and frequent outbursts confirmed what some U.S. officials have long feared about any attempt to bring him to trial: that the accused master terrorist will use the proceedings as a platform to denounce the United States and espouse the radical views of Al Qaeda to the world. Indeed, Mohammed, sporting a massive white and gray beard and dressed in a white tunic and turban, proved a commanding figure in the courtroom. He sparred repeatedly with the judge, Ralph Kohlmann. When Kohlmann asked him if he was willing to accept the military and civilian lawyers appointed for him, Mohammed rose and began chanting Koranic verses.
He then declared, in a surprisingly high-pitched voice, speaking halting but clear English, "I cannot accept any attorney who is not governed by sharia [Islamic] law. I will represent myself. I will not be represented by anybody even if he is a Muslim, because he will be sworn to your American Constitution. I consider all the U.S. Constitution and laws evil. They are allowing for same-sexual marriages and many things that are very bad … Do you understand what I said?"
Kohlmann, shooting down frequent interruptions by defense lawyers, then proceeded with a set of questions to make sure Mohammed understood the consequences of his choice. Attempting to dissuade the defendant, he emphasized that if he is found guilty, the military commission "could ultimately sentence you to death."
Mohammed made it clear he understood all too well. "Yes, this is what I wish: to be a martyr for a long time."
"So you could be sentenced to death?" Kohlmann repeated.
"Maybe you didn't understand what I said," Mohammed shot back. "Military forces are still in Iran and Afghanistan. They are still in our holy land. I am not talking about your American Constitution … your evil law. I am talking about God's law."
The hearing took further bizarre turns throughout this morning. Another of the defendants, Walid Bin Attash, an alleged 9/11 supporting player and also a key figure in the October 2002 bombing of the USS Cole, also rejected his court-appointed lawyers and declared his intention to represent himself. "I am a Muslim and I believe in God, and I reject this session," he said. Another court-appointed lawyer, Thomas Durkin, a notable criminal defense lawyer out of Chicago, ignored repeated admonitions by Kohlmann to "sit down" and stop talking. He told the judge that his client, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, was on "medication" and incapable of making a decision at the moment about how he will be represented. (Bin al-Shibh, a former roommate of lead hijacker Mohammed Atta who is accused of playing a key role in plotting the attacks, was also the only defendant whose legs were shackled in the courtroom.)
After his initial declaration—and twice invoking President Bush by name for invading Iraq and Afghanistan—Mohammed later said he would be willing to allow his appointed defense lawyers to stay on the case as his advisers and that he even might later "change his mind" about representing himself. But his apparent intention to attempt to dominate the proceedings was quickly underscored during a lunchtime recess when, after intensely studying an authorized artist's sketch of himself about to be released to the news media, he rejected it as inadequate. He told court personnel that he wanted the nose in the sketch to look more like the one in an FBI photo of himself, according to a Pentagon spokesman who witnessed the exchange. Mohammed was apparently given veto power over the sketch, and it was not released.
Update: The afternoon session proved every bit as tumultuous. Bin al-Shibh confessed his chagrin that he never got to become a 9/11 "martyr" and there was further squabbling between lawyers and the judge—much of it blotted out from the news media—about the circumstances surrounding the forced "psychotropic" medication being given to the defendant (apparently to keep him sedated). Meanwhile, another defendant, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali—accused of being a key financier for the attacks—seemed to mock the court, proclaiming that he too had been tortured "free of charge" for years and declaring the entire proceedings unjust and "political."
Bin bin al-Shibh, like Mohammed, said he too wanted to reject his court-appointed lawyers and represent himself. Judge Kohlmann tried to determine—as he did with Mohammed—whether the defendant fully understood the charges against him. "To you, they are accusations or charges," the bearded and shackled bin al-Shibh replied, speaking through an Arabic translator. "To me, they are not. I refuse those terms."
But did he understand that if he is found guilty, he could face a "death sentence"? Kohlmann continued.
"I am seeking martyrdom for five years," bin al-Shibh replied. "I tried for September 11 to get a visa and I could not. If this martyrdom happens today, I welcome it. God is great! God is great! God is great!"
The defendant, who had just essentially confirmed that he had sought to become the so-called 20th hijacker, then added: "I do understand I will be killed for the sake of God. But I don't understand that I am guilty."
But al-Shibh's ability to make the choice about representing himself was quickly challenged by his own court-appointed lawyers, who tried to raise again the "new information" they said they had received about drugs he was allegedly being given against his will. Bin al-Shibh seemed to confirm this, telling the judge he was "forced to take" the unspecified medication after his arrest more than five years ago and was told "if I do not, my situation will be worse." When he began to explain how he was given the medication, the court's security officer pressed a buzzer that made the discussion inaudible to the news media and legal observers watching from behind a windowed room in the back of the courtroom. (Lawyers said later that the discussion involved bin al-Shibh's account of where he was taken and given the medication during his years in CIA custody—a matter that remains highly classified.) In any case, bin al-Shibh said that as far as he was concerned the forced psychotropic medication didn't matter. "My mental capacity is absolutely fine," he said. "I don't think that there is reason to force lawyers on me that I don't want."
No sooner did the judge accept bin al-Shibh's decision than he began asking the same questions of Ali—who turned out to be a fluent English speaker and proved to be somewhat sophisticated. (Ali, who is accused of wiring $120,000 to the 9/11 hijackers, described himself as a "Microsoft-certified computer engineer.")
"No offense, lawyers," he said. "I am in the wrong court. I am not a criminal. My case is political." He then seemed to poke some fun at one of Kohlmann's questions to all the defendants: Did they understand that lawyers would be provided to them "free of charge"—a somewhat odd inquiry given that the defendants have all been incarcerated by the CIA and U.S. military for the past five years without access to any funds they might have once had. "The government has tortured me free of charge for all those years," Ali said. "The lawyers here today are for decoy, for decoration."
In perhaps the most remarkable development of the day, the defendants—seated with their lawyers behind one another in five consecutive rows—could be seen talking, gesticulating and signaling, apparently taking their cues from Mohammed. Defense lawyers said they were shocked that Judge Kohlmann permitted the communications without admonition. "It's utterly shameful," said defense lawyer Durkin during an afternoon break in the proceeding. "I've never seen this in 35 years of practicing law." The judge and prosecutors were permitting it "so it will be argued that it's proof of the conspiracy."
But the issue came to a head later in the day when the military lawyer for one of the defendants, Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi, another accused 9/11 financier, said in court that his client had been pressured by Mohammed and the other defendants to reject his court-appointed lawyers. Until last night his client was prepared to accept them, but changed his mind after the morning session, Major Jon Jackson, an Army lawyer appointed to represent al Hawsawi, told the judge.
"He was basically subject to intimidation by the other defendants," Jackson said. "He was basically told he was in the army now." This communication "has led my client to potentially change his mind. I don't believe this is voluntary."
Jackson urged the judge to hold off on requiring Hawsawi to choose whether he wanted to accept his defense lawyers or represent himself. Kohlmann said he would consider the motion, but began his inquiry of Hawsawi anyway—only to suspend it after a few minutes when he concluded the defendant was confused by his questions.
The session concluded with a formal reading of the charges, in which the chief prosecutor, Bob Swann, coldly read out the highlights: that the defendants did commit murder "in the violation of the laws of war" that led to the deaths of 2,970 people. The judge then asked the defendants to rise for the formal arraignment: All five remained seated. The judge then said he would defer their entering of pleas to a later date.