9/11 suspects reject defense lawyers at Guantanamo

Accused mastermind of attacks says he would welcome being executed after judge warns him he faces death penalty.

twin towers 9/11 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
twin towers 9/11 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks said he welcomed martyrdom at US hands, as he and four co-defendants asked to be tried for war crimes without the benefit of lawyers. Thursday's arraignment at this isolated US Navy base marked the first time that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the former No. 3 leader of al-Qaida, has been seen since he was captured in Pakistan in 2003. Mohammed said he would welcome being executed after the judge warned him he faces the death penalty if convicted of organizing the attacks on America. "Yes, this is what I wish, to be a martyr for a long time," Mohammed said. "I will, God willing, have this, by you." Mohammed wore dark-framed prison-issue glasses, a turban and a bushy, gray beard, and was noticeably thinner - a stark change from the slovenly man with disheveled hair, unshaven face and T-shirt from the widely distributed photograph after his capture in Pakistan. He looked older than his 45 years. One of the civilian attorneys he spurned, David Nevin, later told The Associated Press that he would attempt to meet with Mohammed to "hear him out and see if we can give him information that is helpful." Asked how any attorney could defend a man who wants the death penalty, the Boise, Idaho, lawyer said: "It's a tricky matter. I don't have a good answer for you." Waleed bin Attash, who allegedly selected and trained some of the hijackers, asked the judge whether the Sept. 11 defendants - who all face possible death sentences - would be buried at Guantanamo or if their bodies would be shipped home if they were executed. Judge Ralph Kohlmann, a Marine colonel with a crewcut who was dressed in black robes, refused to address the question. The five co-defendants were at turns cordial and defiant at their arraignment, the first US attempt to try in court those believed to be directly responsible for killing 2,973 people in the bloodiest terrorist attack ever on US soil. All five said they would represent themselves. But defense attorneys said four men intimidated a fifth defendant to join them in declaring they didn't want attorneys. At a news conference, the military defense attorneys denounced the court for allowing the defendants to talk among themselves before and during their joint arraignment, saying this is when Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi was pressured into going without a lawyer. "It was clear Mr. Mohammed was trying to intimidate Mr. Hawsawi," said Army Maj. Jon Jackson, his lead military attorney. "He was shaking." Chief military defense counsel Stephen David, an Army colonel, said the fact that the alleged coconspirators were allowed to talk unhindered in the courtroom in their first meeting since they were captured years ago was troubling. "We will have to investigate," David said. The other defendants appeared to be in robust health but al-Hawsawi, who allegedly helped the Sept. 11 hijackers with money and Western-style clothing, looked thin and frail and sat on a pillow on his chair. Army Col. Lawrence Morris, the chief prosecutor at the military trials here, said his office was not responsible for controlling when defendants talk to each other, but added that they should not be pressured into renouncing their lawyers. "The government is as concerned as the defense on the integrity over counsel relationships," he said. The war-crimes tribunal is the highest-profile test yet of the military's tribunal system, which faces an uncertain future. The tribunals have faced repeated legal setbacks, including a Supreme Court appeal on the rights of Guantanamo detainees that could produce a ruling this month halting the proceedings. The arraignment, in which no pleas were entered, indicated that hatred for the United States among some of the defendants remains at a boil. One defendant said he deeply regrets not joining the hijackers who crashed passenger airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. "I have been seeking martyrdom for five years," said Ramzi Binalshibh, the alleged main intermediary between the 19 hijackers and al-Qaida leaders. "I tried for 9/11 to get a visa but I could not." Asked if he understands that he could be executed if found guilty, Binalshibh said: "If this martyrdom happens today, I welcome it. God is great. God is great. God is great." Mohammed, seated at the defense table closest to the judge, was careful not to interrupt him. He lost his composure only after the Marine colonel ordered several defense attorneys to keep quiet. "It's an inquisition. It's not a trial," Mohammed said in broken English, his voice rising. "After torturing they transfer us to inquisition-land in Guantanamo." As the judge closed the session, which lasted nearly 10 hours with breaks, he asked the defendants to rise, but they refused. He said he would set a trial schedule later. The trial also threatens to expose harsh interrogation techniques used on the men, who were in CIA custody before being transferred to Guantanamo in 2006. The administration of US President George W. Bush has acknowledged that Mohammed was subjected to harsh interrogation techniques including waterboarding - a technique that gives the sensation of drowning - in secret CIA custody before he was transferred to Guantanamo in 2006. His attorneys have said they will challenge evidence obtained through coercion. The military tribunals plan to allow coerced testimony, although evidence obtained by torture is not allowed. Air Force Brig. Gen. Tom Hartmann, a top tribunal official, told reporters it was up to the judge to determine whether to allow as evidence statements obtained during waterboarding. Mohammed said he was tortured after being captured in Pakistan in 2003 but didn't elaborate, indicating he understood he should not discuss it in the courtroom. "I can't mention about the torturing," said Mohammed, who received an engineering degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. "I know this is the red line." The other defendants are Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, known as Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew and lieutenant of Mohammed; and Waleed bin Attash, who allegedly selected and trained some of the hijackers.