If the attacks on 9/11 were ‘the crime of the century,’ then the prosecution—finally!—of the men accused of planning those actions should be the trial of the century. Instead, it has become a black farce playing out at a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay with almost no press attention.
After years of delays, preliminary hearings began last month for the five men accused of masterminding the 9/11 attacks. The trials, which are taking place at a military jail in Cuba, have been held up for years because of constitutional wrangling over the issue of legal rights for so-called “enemy combatants.” And while the trials still won’t start in earnest for a few more months, the initial proceedings have been anything but smooth as the angry Al Qaeda prisoners air their frustrations. One tried to fire his lawyer, another refused to speak, and a third grilled the judge about his religious background.
At a preliminary hearing in late September, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who is accused of being a propagandist for Osama bin Laden, complained to the court that there were no reporters in the press box. (The seven American journalists assigned to the trials were likely at the hearing for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, who is by far the bigger fish.)
One translator was fired right from the bench because of her incompetence.
When he was brought back to court this week, al-Bahlul , who’s name roughly translates to “the clown” in Arabic, refused to speak at all because has been barred from representing himself. His Pentagon-appointed lawyer, Air Force Maj. David Frakt, said he would remain silent in solidarity with his client. Maj. Frakt had asked to be removed from the case, in accordance with his client’s wishes, but the judge denied his request.
Faced with stony silence, the judge, Air Force Col. Ronald Gregory, adjourned the session, saying the burden will be on the prosecution team to prove any guilt.
When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed appeared before the tribunal in September, he questioned his judge’s background, and grilled him about religion and torture. “The government considers all of us fanatical extremists,” Mohammed told the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann. “How can you, as an officer of the US Marine Corps, stand over me in judgment?”
Kohlmann seemed to be aware that Mohammad suspected him of being Jewish because of his surname, and considered this a charge that deserved an answer. He explained to the defendant that he attended Episcopal and Lutheran services.
Mohammed went on to make political statements about US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prejudice of Christians and Jews against Islam, and even quoted the writings of Richard Nixon. Some of his comments prompted a government censor to cut off his microphone. There is a 20-second delay between what is said in the court room and what is heard in the press gallery, and security officer wielding a mute button can interrupt that transmission.
Defense Department spokesman Jeffrey Gordon explained to The Daily Beast that security officer Bob Powell, who is in charge of the mute button, is supposed to use it if he hears something that he deems a national security concern.
Powell also hit mute when alleged co-conspirator Ramzi Bin Al-Shiebah’s defense lawyer made the case that he was unfit to stand trial because he was taking a mind-altering prescription drug. She was trying to make the case that her client was criminally insane and should not stand trial.
But Bin Al-Shiebah, oblivious to his lawyer’s attempts to save his life, asked to fire her, insisting that he was guilty and wanted to be a martyr.
According to the DoD, Powell censored the part about the drug to protect the privacy of the suspect’s medical records.
The trials are continually bogged down by suspects’ challenging the tribunals’ jurisdiction, qualifications and procedures. At one point in the fall, the five “high-value” Al Qaeda prisoners, including Mohammed, were denied a request for a late start to accommodate the fasting schedule in the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
Defense lawyers have also complained that the court translators were unqualified, and Gordon told The Daily Beast that one translator was fired right from the bench because of her incompetence.
Recently, defense attorneys began discussing whether to ask Judge Kohlmann to disqualify himself based on his answers to Mohammed’s questions. They would not discuss this in details because of gag rules they say are enforced.
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, who has for years helped steer Bush administration detainee policy, has now endorsed a plan to airlift family members of those killed in the 9/11 attacks—chosen by lottery—to witness parts of the proceedings. In an Oct. 20 letter, the chief war crimes prosecutor invited five victims’ relatives to attend a hearing on Dec. 8.
That, too, may pass largely unremarked by the US press. The staggering lack of interest so far might be explained by the fact that these are preliminary hearings –no trial date has been set—or by the long distance to Guantanamo in an era of shrinking news budgets.
Or perhaps it’s the timing: it has been seven years since 9/11, and the big fish, Osama Bin Laden, is not standing in the dock. Not to mention that now we have the presidential election and a new 9/11—the economic crisis.